Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Friday, 12 February 2010

Poland swine flu threat remains

By Adam Easton
BBC News, Warsaw

Packets of tamiflu
Other countries stocked up on swine flu vaccines in preparation

Poland has avoided accumulating unused swine flu vaccine, unlike other EU countries, but the vaccine controversy has not gone away.

Poland was the only EU country that refused to order the vaccines when the pandemic was announced last autumn.

Health Minister Ewa Kopacz's decision was challenged at the time, as the media began reporting the first confirmed deaths from the H1N1 virus.

Since November there have been 172 confirmed deaths from swine flu, but the media has lost interest in the story and has instead turned its attention to stories about the large stockpiles of unused swine flu vaccines in Western Europe.

But that does not mean the Polish government is in a boastful mood.

"It's not about satisfaction. We don't want to be seen as a country which opposes vaccines, we want to protect our citizens but not under the conditions set by the pharmaceutical companies," health ministry spokesman Piotr Olechno told the BBC.

Mr Olechno said the government had decided not to buy the vaccines because it could not guarantee there were no side effects and it did not want to take responsibility for those.

"We don't think that the vaccine is dangerous but we cannot agree with the pharmaceutical companies not taking responsibility for the potential side effects," said Mr Olechno.

"The companies wanted the government to take responsibility for any potential side effects and that contravenes Polish law."

He said the government also did not want to purchase the vaccines; it wanted them to be available on the market like any other medicine.

Difficult decisions

But the government's decision has led to a domestic feud between the health minister and Poland's Ombudsman, Janusz Kochanowski, who threatened to sue Dr Kopacz for endangering people's lives.

H1N1 bacteria
The UK has the highest number of confirmed swine flu cases in Europe

Mr Kochanowski, who became ill with swine flu in December, asked the prosecutor's office to investigate the government's actions but it declined to do so and now the Ombudsman is taking civil action against the ministry, announcing on his Twitter page that "the crusade has just begun".

Dr Jacek Mrukowicz, the editor-in-chief of Practical Medicine-Paediatrics, admits that the government faced "very difficult" decisions about the risk assessment of swine flu and how best to protect citizens.

But he believes the government was simply unprepared for the pandemic and its decision not to buy the vaccines was made at the last minute by very few medical experts.

"They were considerably lucky. It was not a wise choice or a decision based on cost effectiveness or a risk-benefit analysis. It was just luck," he told the BBC.

'Premature celebrations'

Dr Mrukowicz said the government was wrong not to offer Poles the choice of having the vaccine.

It's way too premature to cheer about whether it was a good decision to reject the vaccines
Dr Jacek Mrukowicz
Practical Medicine-Paediatrics

According to studies, between 25% and 30% of people here want that choice, revealing, he said, that many Poles had reservations about the safety of the vaccines following the health ministry's warnings about the potential side effects.

He said the government had not even bothered to organise an educational campaign about swine flu prevention, a relatively inexpensive method to reduce the number of cases.

Dr Mrukowicz said he had analysed the number of laboratory-confirmed cases and the mortality ratio in Sweden and Norway, where the governments decided to vaccinate the majority of the population, and in Poland, where the government decided against it.

In Sweden and Norway the rise of laboratory-confirmed cases has stopped; in Poland, it is still rising.

"We have to wait until the influenza season is over to make good research and analyse which countries made the right decisions," he said.

"It's way too premature to cheer about whether it was a good decision to reject the vaccines."

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