Poland refuses H1N1 flu vaccines

WARSAW, Poland — The government here refused to import H1N1 flu vaccines amid worldwide warnings of a spreading epidemic.

Poland became the only country worldwide known to reject the vaccines over safety fears and distrust in the drug companies producing them — concerns international health experts reject as unfounded, The Associated Press reported Jan. 13.

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 flu deaths in Poland to date, many Poles view the rejection of the vaccines as a laudable gesture of defiance against pharmaceutical companies, sentiment shaped by a strengthening anti-vaccine movement and conspiracy theories about the vaccines circulating on the Internet.

Poles take pride in having a strong independent streak and many 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.

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.

"The saving grace for Poland is that this swine flu 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.

Only one leading Polish 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 a symbolic 1 zloty (35 U.S. cents) for what he describes as a human rights offense: unnecessarily risking the health of the population by refusing to make vaccines available or take any other steps to fight the spread of H1N1 flu.

"This flu will pass, but there is a new flu every year and the government should prepare every year. However, this government is not only not preparing, but it's making a special point of not being prepared and then claims glory."