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Poland's internal swine flu fight

The human rights ombudsman accuses the health minister of putting Poles at risk.

In Poland, there has not been panic about swine flu, unlike in neighboring Ukraine, where these people wear protective masks in the subway in Kiev, Nov. 10, 2009. (Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters)

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.