When our children become deniable guinea pigs

I am about to tell you how the dengue vaccine program broke my heart. Bear with me as I wax emotional about a tragedy I saw coming but couldn’t stop.

One year and nine months ago, I wrote a carefully-crafted dengue vaccine article for MIMS that advised caution even as it stayed optimistic, given how children who received it were at a greater risk for severe disease compared to those who didn’t. I wasn’t alone in my fears after colleagues saw the evidence.

Despite fair warning from health experts, the Philippine government procured the vaccine, showing telltale signs of strong-arm tactics, for a vaccine program targeting 1 million school children. The program cost a staggering PHP 3.5 billion – almost twice as much as what was spent for a preexisting comprehensive immunization program against hepatitis B, tetanus, tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, pertussis, and measles, available to all qualified members of the pediatric population.

Children were immunized even as the dengue vaccine trials were still ongoing.

dengue vaccine

Five days ago, Sanofi released a statement finally admitting that the dengue vaccine they sold to the Philippines may lead to a severe form of dengue in those without prior infection.

Oddly enough, the drug group denied turning our children into guinea pigs.


Sad to be right

I am so tempted to tell Sanofi, “I told you so.” In fact, many others told you so. Filipino doctors, scientists – and even Dr. Scott Halstead, noted dengue researcher who coined the term antibody-dependent enhancement, a unique and potentially deadly reaction to dengue infection – warned against the dengue vaccine due to signals of harm evident in previous studies.

But I won’t say it. It feels awful to be right.

Warnings fell on deaf ears as money talked louder. After the vaccine program pushed through, Sanofi even partnered with Watsons to provide dengue vaccination on a commercial basis, despite orders from the Food and Drug Authority to halt marketing.

While Sanofi and the government officials who pushed for the dengue vaccine program deserve all the shade coming their way, I can’t seem to find the energy to gloat. I was right. My colleagues were right. But at what price? The lives of innocent children?

In this war of wills, the children lose. Do any of us really want to win?


700,000 lives too late

Sanofi’s statement, coming at the heels of a long-overdue change in vaccine label, is one year and nine months too late. Hundreds of thousands of Filipino children have already been given the vaccine. It would be difficult to figure out who among them never had dengue in the past, because an initial dengue infection can have nonspecific symptoms. Testing the serologic status is expensive and, in this case, one vaccine – and 700,000 lives – too late.

Because of a vaccine prematurely approved for use while it was still undergoing Phase IV trials, these children will be at risk for potentially-lethal severe dengue for an indefinite period of time.

Checks and balances existed to ensure the safety of the people. Regrettably, these were set aside to ensure the vaccine was included in the formulary, approved for use, and procured with a multibillion price tag not even remotely proportionate to the disease burden it hoped to relieve.

Several deaths post-vaccination have allegedly been reported. What happens now? Who will be held accountable for any loss of life?

What do we do as a people after we realize that our children have become deniable guinea pigs for an allegedly-corrupt experiment masquerading as a vaccine program?


No immunity to blame

Label changes are not enough. Adding salt to the wound, press statements that prioritized deniability over liability are a travesty of the apology we demand and deserve.

We need to seek justice, just as much as we need to grieve. Sanofi and the government officials who kowtowed to them can no longer put lipstick on this ugly pig.

But they are not the only ones accountable for this sad scam of an experiment. While health advocates continue to fight and give hope, a war against corruption and death cannot be fought without the active involvement of the entire medical community.

There should never have been recommendations until there was enough information. There should never have been immunization schedules released by medical societies that included the dengue vaccine until its safety was certain.

Doctors now find themselves in a dilemma, wondering what to do after giving vaccines to patients who were never tested for previous dengue exposure. The government has rightfully suspended the distribution and sale of the dengue vaccine, but now finds itself the subject of a public backlash.

Nobody is immune to blame in this catastrophe of a vaccine program.

This is, plain and simple, a sad controversy involving political and pharmaceutical giants; a health tragedy colored by politics and money that breaks the heart of every Filipino forced to witness the disinclination to accountability.


We are all in this together. We have to join forces and pick up the pieces. We have to move on and figure out how to protect our children from further harm. But we have to uncover the truth and hold people responsible to ensure this will never happen again.

And the next time you hear of some really vocal health advocates openly criticizing a new drug or vaccine, I hope you join the conversation. We should all speak up, ask questions, and exercise discretion.

Silence is agreement. Neutrality is endorsement. Don’t our children deserve better?

The morbid business of recovery

I feel like an empty house. No, not empty; looted. Ravaged by thieves, with tables upended; curtains ripped. Misspelled graffiti on the walls.

blood extractionFour tubes of my blood stayed on my bed as the medical technician tinkered with his kit. Blood extraction wasn’t hard; inserting a peripheral line was – my veins had collapsed after I vomited bile several times and went on to have watery stools 20 times a day.

A week ago, I was finally sent home by my doctors after ten days in the hospital – ten days that would become some of the longest in my life. After working on a tentative diagnosis, my doctors finally saw me fit to go home and heal there.

But recovery is slow. Peaceful, if you ignore the occasional text messages reminding you of the work you’ve left behind, but slow. And painful.


Permission to heal

It seems I have regressed to a former self, one that prefers to curl up in a corner. I devour books with an emotional hunger that cannot be sated. (You have any good ones? Send them over; I’m seriously famished.) Words swim in my mind, hoping to find themselves on paper, willing me to find the energy to jot them down. My fingers still tremble as I give in, still weak from a sickness that drained me of vital fluids and salts (and more), but that scrappy little thing in my chest continues to beat steadily, driving me forward, telling me I have much to do before my flame is extinguished from this beautiful, temporary world.

I’m healing, but it will take a long time before I become the me that the world and I have become familiar with. My sickness has taken away a big chunk of me, leaving in its wake a gaping emptiness that, like any vacuum, craves to be filled. Ergo, the books. Why exactly these books are what I need, I can probably blame on my inherent introversion.

I have retreated into my own mind – not too far to be out of touch, but far enough to be mulling things over with a morbid sobriety bereft of any laughter. My usual acerbic sense of humor tickles the edges of my mind, but it’s not welcome yet.

I feel like a house that needs more than just new furniture. I need a major overhaul: new walls, new windows, new paint job. My foundation stands firm, but so much of me has been taken away that what remains is a promising DIY project at best.

At worst, it’s a potential haunted house. Then again, I’m a Stephen King fan, so why worry?

The wheels in my mind creak as they struggle to turn in their rusted axles, not having found enough momentum to move in their usual rhythm. And their usual rhythm is at breakneck speed. Everything is agonizingly slow and hazy, like a chilly December night with expected heavy fog.

My mind suffers the most, and it knows this.

At least I’m writing again. And I share this with you, painstakingly, with heavy eyelids that tell me I’ll be snoring in my sleep from the effort it took to write this, because I know I’m healing and I want to show you the ugly, private things that happen to me and to my mind during my convalescence. I do not want to be positive if it means I have to be fake.

More importantly, I want to show you how after illness steals from you like looters helping themselves to the best your cushy home has to offer, you always, always have the option to “renovate”.

I’m not yet back, but I will be. This scrappy, steady, beating thing in my chest tells me this with certainty.

Death or (tobacco) taxes?

They say nothing is certain but death and taxes. But what if I told you we can choose between the two?

Health Warrior

Yesterday, hundreds of Facebook users, myself included, added the “I’m a Health Warrior” frame to their profile photos. Medical society officers, government officials, health organization leaders, and even a former Department of Health (DOH) secretary joined the fight.

Health WarriorsJust a few fellow Health Warriors: Former DOH Secretary Paulyn Ubial, University of the Philippines Executive VP Ted Herbosa, and PhilHealth Director Tony Leachon.

While I and my fellow Health Warriors fight for health in general, some of us are preparing for a major social media event on November 3, which we hinted at in our captions. On that day, we will be choosing between death and taxes.

A war is brewing, folks, and we will have to take our pick.

tobacco senators(Photo from Bawas Bisyo on Facebook)

Unfortunately, even when armed with a choice, not everyone will pick life-saving taxes over death. When a certain tax is so obviously good, we should ask ourselves why some people refuse to support it. And when those people happen to be public servants who swore to protect the public, it begs the question, will you still vote for them in 2019? (Like you, I want to find out who these politicians are, which is why I’m following Bawas Bisyo on Facebook.)

My open letter to New San Jose Builders about healthy energy

Dear New San Jose Builders,

Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar is beautiful, breathtaking… and rather disappointing.

I laud you for what you have achieved: the ancestral homes in your heritage resort have been sourced from all over the Philippines, and later reconstructed and restored, making your property the only one in the country to become part of Historic Hotels Worldwide. Your company has made quite an effort to showcase history and preserve culture.

This is exactly why I find it a contradiction that your company has not done the barest minimum to conserve energy.

Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar

Conserving architecture without conserving energy is an ideological dichotomy.

5 Kitchen secrets I learned from 2nd Avenue

Yes, I can cook. I mean, frying bacon is cooking, right? Alright, you got me, I’m a dud in the kitchen!

I do, however, love to eat. Nom.

bloggers cooking classWait, is that really me? And  am I actually learning to cook food with fellow bloggers?!?

So when 2nd Avenue asked me to come to 25 Mushrooms Kitchen (which I knew as this fancy-shmancy venue for cooking classes from a previous event I attended) for some much-needed cooking lessons with other members of traditional and new media, I immediately said yes!


Cooking at home: the healthier option

In just a couple of hours, I learned to cook California rolls, tempura, Japanese fried rice, and Teriyaki chicken. I also found out why ebi (shrimp) tempura stays straight (instead of curling up the way shrimp normally does when it’s cooked). And did you know that you can make shrimps look an inch or two longer?

But I’m getting ahead of myself, so I’ll let the photos tell a more complete story.

25 Mushrooms 2nd Avenue

25 Mushrooms Kitchen cooking class  Japanese fried rice

25 Mushrooms Kitchen

2nd Avenue cooking class

That’s fellow blogger Marj beside me, in case you were wondering.

My mom is a great cook and my brother is an actual chef, but I know very little when it comes to cooking! I know that cooking at home – instead of ordering out all the time – can help me make better, healthier decisions about food, so it’s a good thing that I can now make sushi rice. (In case you were wondering, it’s one of the things that sets good maki apart from the bland-tasting ones you buy for cheap.)


5 things I learned that day

While some of the things I learned that day are hard to explain in a blog post, here are five things I can easily share with you.


1. There’s a trick to keep ebi tempura straight

bento boxLook at that ebi tempura. So straight, so yummy!

No, they don’t use special prawns that miraculously stay straight after frying. You actually have to make multiple cuts on the underside of the shrimp so that even when the flesh is exposed to heat, it stays perfectly flat!


2. Perfectly-seasoned sushi rice is the secret to good maki

California rollsHave you ever wondered why some maki taste meh? The secret is in the rice.

Whenever I ate at a Japanese restaurant for the first time, I would order maki so that I could tell how good the food would be. Bland-tasting rolls were a red flag: The rest of the food was usually just as bad as the basic maki.

However, I never knew why good maki tasted the way it did. It was only after the cooking lessons that I found out why: The rice used in maki should be doused with a special mixture of vinegar, sugar, and salt!

Many stalls selling maki in bulk trays usually skip that step, which explains the lack of flavor.


3. The secret to crispy tempura is ice

ebi tempura

Dipping the shrimp in cold batter ensures maximum crisp post-frying. The temperature difference between the cold batter and the hot oil causes the tempura to become really crispy after it cooks, very much like how obsidian is brittle because it cools quicker than other volcanic rocks. (Erm, I know, nerd alert!)

Make sure you have some ice cubes in your bowl of batter while you dip your prawns. That’s a trade secret you can use with other recipes, don’t you think?


4. Pretty maki requires really sharp knives

California maki

I tried to replicate the maki at home. It tasted the same – yummy! – but it didn’t look as pretty during our cooking class.

The reason? I didn’t have sharp knives!

Before you make maki at home, make sure you have a sharp knife. While there are those made specifically to cut sushi, they can be rather costly. A sharp, ordinary kitchen knife will do, unless you don’t mind the splurge.


5. Knife Fight and Hell’s Kitchen are coming to local television

2nd Avenue and 25 MushroomsDo you have 2nd Avenue via cable?

You can now binge-watch Knife Fight and Hell’s Kitchen all I want!

In case you haven’t seen Knife Fight: Different chefs fight for the top spot using surprise ingredients that they must include in their recipes.

And I bet you already know Hell’s Kitchen! If you don’t, may I ask which rock you’ve been living under? For the uninitiated in all things Chef Ramsay, Hell’s Kitchen is another cooking contest where different chefs battle it out to  be the best one in the kitchen. Ramsay makes things interesting with his explosive temper and cussing. If hell had a kitchen, it would probably look like the one in this show!

Catch both shows on 2nd Avenue, available on both free and cable TV! Oh, and check out 25 Mushrooms Kitchen – they have really good cooking classes, in case you want to eat your way towards better health.

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