Poland has become the only country to reject H1N1 vaccines, in a decision fraught with risk amid worldwide warnings of a spreading epidemic. The country rejected the vaccines over safety fears and distrust in the drug companies producing them – concerns international health experts reject as unfounded.
Now that the current outbreak appears to have peaked in much of Europe, many Poles feel their government has been vindicated. Countries with large stockpiles often saw low public interest in the vaccines and face financial loss from unused doses now set to expire. But Poland’s government didn’t spend a cent fighting the epidemic.
All along, the decision by Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Health Minister Ewa Kopacz met with broad support. Even with 145 H1N1 deaths in Poland to date, many Poles view the rejection of the vaccines as a laudable gesture of defiance against pharmaceutical companies, a sentiment shaped by a strengthening anti-vaccine movement and conspiracy theories about the vaccines circulating on the Internet.
“I had the impression that the information about swine flu was manipulated in order to create a panic,” said Barbara Lazniewska, a 38-year-old architect who was among the many Poles to applaud the government’s stance. Many Poles respect the government for defying the EU, the World Health Organization and other international groups that urged countries to implement vaccination programs advice that smacked to some of meddling in internal affairs.
The prime minister described Poland as a country with the rare “courage” to refuse a vaccine that he believes has not undergone sufficient testing. “We are making this decision only in the interest of the Polish patient and the taxpayer,” Mr. Tusk insisted in December. “We will not take part because it’s not honest and it’s not safe for the patient.”
The anti-vaccine movement argues it is untested or contains risky ingredients, like the preservative thimerosal. However, there is little difference in the H1N1 vaccine’s formulation from the regular flu vaccine, which is available in Poland, and all evidence so far suggests it is safe and effective. The WHO says more than 150 million people have been vaccinated in more than 40 countries and that no unusual or dangerous side effects have been seen.
“The saving grace for Poland is that this H1N1 pandemic is so far very mild. It would be a big scandal if this were a virus that would cause many deaths,” said Andrew McMichael, an immunologist and the director of the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford.
Other conspiracy theories claim the drug companies making the vaccine secretly lobbied the WHO to declare H1N1 a global epidemic to fatten their own pockets, a theory unproven but which some Europeans seem inclined to believe. Even the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recently recommended that the EU investigate WHO’s H1N1 pandemic declaration to see if the body acted under undue influence.
In an e-mailed statement, WHO said its members “guard against the influence of any vested interests” but declined any other comment on the allegations, saying the group’s flu chief, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, will address them during a news conference Thursday.
WHO spokeswoman Karen Mah said the organization has no reports of other countries rejecting the vaccine outright. Some countries, however, haven’t launched vaccine programs because they lack the money.
Poland’s leading official, Janusz Kochanowski, the ombudsman for civil rights, has waged a prominent public fight against the government over vaccines, condemning its stance as irrational and irresponsible. He vowed to sue the health minister for what he describes as a human rights offence, unnecessarily risking the health of the population by refusing to make vaccines available or take any other steps to fight the spread of H1N1. Kochanowski came down with the flu himself over the Christmas holidays.
The doctors in the country are deeply divided on the matter, but some are clearly critical of the government.
“It should be the patient’s rights to choose – that would be democracy in health care,” said Maria Ciesielska, a doctor whose disapproval only intensified when her 7-year-old son was laid up for a week with H1N1 in November.