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Poland's internal swine flu fight

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


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.