March 1 (UPI) -- A day after UNICEF said the Philippines saw one of the largest increases in measles cases last year, its Department of Justice announced it had indicted the country's former health secretary in connection to deaths allegedly caused by a controversial dengue fever vaccination.
In a court document dated Feb. 11 but announced Friday, a Department of Justice panel found probable cause to charge former health secretary Jannette Grain and nine other department officials with reckless imprudence resulting in homicide, the PhilStar reported.
Six officials with the vaccine division of the pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur Inc., two Food and Drug Administration employees and two doctors at a research institute were also charged.
In a statement, the justice department said the charges stem from the purchase and administration of Dengvaxia, a dengue fever vaccine, before the completion of clinical trials.
Over 800,000 students received the vaccine in April 2016, CNN Philippines reported.
However, in November 2017 Sanofi Pasteur announced that the vaccine could cause severe dengue if administered to people who hadn't been previously infected with the disease.
So far, the Public Attorney's Office has filed 31 Dengvaxia-related complaints, with the most recent complaint filed late January concerning the death of a doctor, the Rappler reported.
The Justice Department panel said in a statement Friday that on top of rolling out the program before the drug was finished testing, Grain and the other defendants were also "careless in implementing the mass immunization program."
Grain and the other health officials "totally disregarded the identified risks and adverse effects of the vaccines," the department said without mention what the side effects were or giving the number of people who died from it.
The charges come amid an outbreak of measles that has affected the entire country.
For months the country has been battling a measles outbreak. So far in 2019, there have been almost 13,000 reported measles cases and 203 deaths, mostly children, from the disease.
UNICEF said Thursday that the Philippines had the second most measles cases for 2018 and a huge increase in the number of cases from 2017 when it had 2,428.
Though there are many factors attributed to the outbreak, the Department of Health has identified vaccine hesitancy as one of the main reasons.
Current health secretary Francisco Duque has previously blamed the low vaccination rate on the widespread political controversy that followed the announcement of Dengvaxia's side effects.
"Loss of public confidence and trust in vaccines in the immunization program brought about by the Dengvaxia controversy has been documented as one of many factors that contributed to vaccine hesitancy in the country," the department said in a media release from earlier this month.
In its announcement of charges Friday, the Justice Department was quick to remind the public that despite this issue vaccines are still the best way to fight disease.
Charging the officials with neglect "should not, in any way, be used to stoke public fear of vaccination," the Justice Department said.