Philippine National Red Cross and Health Department volunteers conduct house-to-house measles vaccination to children at an informal settlers community in Manila, Philippines following an outbreak of measles that already spread to four regions in the country and has claimed the lives of more than five dozen victims Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. The house-to-house vaccination was prompted by the reluctance of parents to have their children vaccinated due to the controversy involving an anti-Dengue vaccine known as Dengvaxia. In an effort to convince the parents, the Department of Health has tapped the services of President Rodrigo Duterte and Filipino boxing champion and now Senator Manny Pacquiao to allay fearful parents. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
About 13,000 cases of measles have been reported — and 215 deaths — this year in the Philippines, compared with 15,599 cases in the whole of 2018, according to the department of health © AP

The Philippines government it is set to charge six employees at Sanofi, as well as former and current health officials, over 10 deaths that prosecutors claim are linked to the French pharmaceutical company’s dengue vaccine.

The justice department on Friday said the Sanofi employees, and former Philippines health minister Janette Garin, were among 20 individuals who had exhibited “inexcusable lack of precaution and foresight” when they rolled out the world’s first mass immunisation programme against dengue fever using Sanofi’s Dengvaxia.

Justice undersecretary Markk Perete told Reuters 35 deaths were under investigation, 10 of which were the basis for the charges of “reckless imprudence resulting in homicide “announced on Friday.

Mr Perete said the 20 individuals faced up to six years in prison for each of the alleged offences. All but two officials could be charged with eight counts of reckless imprudence resulting in homicide, he said.

Sanofi, which maintains Dengvaxia is safe, said: “We strongly disagree with the findings made against Sanofi and some of its employees and we will vigorously defend them. As this is an ongoing proceeding, it would not be appropriate for us to comment further at this time.”

Dengvaxia was given to roughly 830,000 children. It has been front-page news in the Philippines, where dengue is prevalent and infections are common, since it was pulled from the market in December 2017, after Sanofi said the drug could worsen symptoms among people who had not been infected by the virus before vaccination.

This brought multiple accusations against local health officials and Sanofi itself. Figures from the department of health linked Dengvaxia to a number of deaths, although this is disputed by some experts. The charges are the result of an investigation into the deaths of children allegedly linked to the vaccine.

Meanwhile, officials have said parents’ fear of Dengvaxia has played a role in fuelling antivax sentiment that has been a principal cause of the current measles epidemic in the Philippines.

As of February 26, there have been 13,723 reported cases of measles and 215 deaths this year, compared with 15,599 cases in the whole of 2018, according to the department of health.

A report by Unicef published on Friday warned that a global surge in measles cases presents a growing threat to children, and said the Philippines, alongside Ukraine and Brazil, had recorded the largest increases in measles cases from 2017 to 2018.

According to Gundo Weiler, representative of the World Health Organization in Manila, the dengue vaccine scandal is partly to blame for a drop in measles vaccination coverage in the Philippines, from between 70 per cent and 80 per cent in recent years to under 70 per cent — far below the 95 per cent needed to avoid the spread of measles in a community.

“It’s quite problematic that this has happened: that people now look critically at the routine vaccines as well,” said Mr Weiler. “Dengvaxia has probably made a bad situation worse.”

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