Poland’s internal swine flu fight

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The World

WARSAW, Poland — Poland is standing alone against the swine flu, as one of the only European Union member states to refuse to place orders for the H1N1 virus vaccine because of the health minister’s concerns about its safety.

But now the country’s human rights ombudsman is threatening the health minister, Ewa Kopacz, with prosecution unless she moves on the vaccine.

Kopacz, who is also a doctor, is worried about the vaccine and is refusing to act until the pharmaceutical companies making the vaccine accept responsibility for any side effects, something they have been excused from by the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic.

“If I had a 100 percent certainty that the vaccine was a panacea for the swine flu, I would certainly buy it,” Kopacz said in an interview with radio station Tok FM, adding that she felt drug companies were “covering up” some information about the vaccines.

“I feel that the research on the vaccines lasted too short a time,” she said.

Kopacz’s stand is very different from most of her European counterparts. Mass vaccination programs have begun in France, Germany and Scandinavia, as well as in central European countries like Hungary.

Her position has put her at odds with Janusz Kochanowski, who heads Poland’s human rights office, and worries that Poland is completely unprepared for dealing with a potential swine flu epidemic. He is toying with the idea of filing charges against Kopacz.

“What is the ombudsman supposed to do when he is powerless and ignored?” Kochanowski asked in a Tok FM interview. “I wake up with this issue and go to sleep with it, because my back is up against the wall and I don’t see any other answer.”

Despite Kopacz’ medical background, there are concerns that she is taking a potential risk if the current influenza season gets much worse. Kochanowski has said that he doesn’t know how many people’s deaths Kopacz will have on her conscience. He has called on Poles to inoculate themselves in other European countries where the vaccination is available.

A deputy health minister, in turn, has threatened to refer Kochanowski to the prosecutor’s office for complicating the ministry’s work.

As of Saturday, health authorities have said that 38 people have died in Poland from the swine flu and about 750 have been infected. However, the true level of infections is impossible to determine, both because people with milder cases tend not to report them, and because Poland has very few tests to confirm the presence of the H1N1 virus. Most of the tests have to be performed in neighboring Germany.

As well as lacking tests, the Polish health care system also needs more equipment like artificial lungs, to keep patients with severe influenza cases breathing.

The Polish media has been consumed with the swine flu story, reporting every death and serious case. So far there has been no panic like in neighboring Ukraine, where the country was paralyzed with fear a couple of weeks ago, with schools being shut down and thousands donning generally ineffective face masks to protect themselves against the virus.

Although there is something of the hypochondriac in the Polish character — garlic cures and energy treatments are popular – it is more than balanced by a conspiratorial worldview which would subscribe to the idea of pharmaceutical companies keeping knowledge of the side effects of vaccines to themselves, as well as a suspicion of bureaucracy, including the health ministry.

But if the disease takes a turn for the worse, then Kopacz’s stand could have political ramifications. She is a minister in the center-right government of Donald Tusk, and Kochanowski is a political ally of Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s right-wing president and Tusk’s likely rival in next year’s presidential elections.

On his web page, Kochanowski’s office has a note for every patient killed by the swine flu virus.

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