Hungary is not the only country where the H1N1 vaccine gets turned into a political issue, but there are not too many countries where politics can overshadow even medical opinions. Because as it stands today, a doctor whose political sympathies are with the right will tell his patients that the vaccination against the H1N1 virus is dangerous. These doctors don't know more about the components of the vaccine or the way it is manufactured than you or I do. They are pediatricians or ordinary GPs who couldn't possibly have any knowledge of the details.
Hírszerző talked to about a dozen family doctors or doctors who work in hospitals and asked them whether they are recommending the vaccination to their patients.They were all skeptical. Meanwhile a campaign is going on, initiated by the ministry of health and the office of the chief health officer, that aims to inoculate approximately a third of the population, starting with youngsters, doctors and nurses, parents of young children, and teachers. The campaign obviously is not working too well. Neither health professionals nor the population as a whole is entirely convinced. Webdoki.hu, a closed site reserved for doctors, conducted a survey which determined that 75% of the members would not themselves be vaccinated. Only nine percent will definitely get the shot, while the rest "are thinking about it."
A doctor from Budapest said that of course she herself cannot offer an opinion, but if a patient asks she will tell the person that she doesn't recommend the shot for people middle-aged or older because their chance of getting the flu is only 10%. There may be complications, and then the hospitals will have to pick up the pieces. Some doctors go even further. They think that the vaccination was developed too fast and that the pharmaceutical companies didn't allow enough time for testing, or rather they tried it out on too few people. "What will happen if complications show up only in the thousandth person and not a month but let's say half a year later?" (I'm no doctor but this sounds far-fetched to me!) The doctor who came up with this piece of wisdom added that "this flu is mild and doesn't cause serious illness." So why take the risk? The other side reminds people that there were already three victims of the flu in the country.
Another doctor specializing in infectious diseases claimed that no one took the trouble to check the influence of the vaccine on pregnant women. Or, to be more precise, there were no studies done on women who got the vaccine and subsequently become pregnant. (I have been trying to figure out how such a study could be undertaken and for the life of me I can't come up with any intelligent answer.) He would advise pregnant women not to be vaccinated, period. On the other hand, Endre Czeizel, a well known expert in the field of child bearing, just today announced that pregnant women should by all means be vaccinated and considered it "medical irresponsibility to frighten pregnant women about the vaccination."
By now the rift in the medical community with the help of the media has managed to create an atmosphere that may negatively influence the success of the vaccination effort. The right-wing doctors–and they are perhaps in the majority–are spreading rumors about the vaccine far and wide in a country where rumors were the salt of life during the "socialist" period. Conspiracy theories have always abounded and still abound. The newspapers are full of them, especially when it comes to politics. By now the situation is so bad that the minister of health is suing "persons unknown" who by their rumor mongering are endagering public safety. By the way, the concept in Hungarian law of "persons unknown" intrigues me. For example, UD Zrt.'s lawyer claimed the other day that the head of the National Security Office shouldn't have sued UD Zrt. (although the office had the tapes of telephone conversations conducted on the telephone of UD Zrt.) but "persons unknown." Then he wouldn't be personally responsible for damaging the reputation of the firm!
It is not only right-leaning doctors who are spreading false stories about the vaccine but politicians as well. István Mikola, the so-called doctor of the nation, and Lajos Kósa, the most popular Fidesz politician, turned against an MSZP MP who called his constituents' attention to the importance of vaccination against the H1N1 virus. They called it a campaign trick. If Fidesz politicians don't like the vaccine, one can imagine what Jobbik politicians think. Lately I found out that Géza Gyenes, secretary of the Hungarian Medical Association, is in charge of Jobbik's health policy. According to him, thirty people in the United States died of Guillain-Barré syndrome after receiving the swine flu vaccine in 1976. Studies don't support the contention that Guillain-Barré syndrome is directly caused by the vaccine. The exact cause of Guillain-Barré syndrome is unknown, but it is often preceded by an infectious illness such as a respiratory infection or the stomach flu. Several studies were conducted on the connection between the flu vaccine and Guillain-Barré syndrome which found, according to one study, that the H1N1 vaccine posed a 1 in 100,000 risk while, according to another, the seasonal flu vaccine carries a 1 in one million risk for Guillain-Barré syndrome. By contrast, 1 in 8,300 Americans die of flu each year.
János Dési, a well known journalist, wrote a biting piece in today's Népszava entitled "Vaccine against stupidity." He recalled that vaccination against smallpox was virulently opposed by the Catholic church. For example, in 1829 Pople Leo XII declared that anyone who gets inoculated "ceases to be the child of God." In 1885 there was an outbreak of smallpox in Montreal. Three thousand French Canadians died, mostly because of the opposition of the Catholic church to vaccination. The Protestants in the city didn't get the disease. That changed the pious Catholic French Canadians' thinking in a hurry.
Admittedly, there are other countries where vaccination is systematically resisted by the population. One example is Great Britain where false rumors spread easily about anything the British public is not accustomed to. For example, fluoridation. The British don't believe in it and their teeth continue to rot. The British Dental Association supports fluoridation of the water supply but it is a "provocative" idea … [that] really gets the anti-fluoride lobby going." The same is true about vaccination. Not long ago the government decided to vaccinate young girls against cervical cancer. One girl, a fourteen-year-old, died a day after she received the shot. The reaction was predictable. The media started spreading the rumor that the vaccine against cervical cancer was more dangerous than cervical cancer itself. Later it turned out that her death had absolutely nothing to do with the vaccination. She had an undiagnosed fatal tumor. But, as they say, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it's impossible to get it back in.
I heard a British doctor who has a column in The Guardian (www.badscience.net) relate a funny story about the British penchant for opposing anything the government comes up with. The Daily Mail has two versions of the paper, one for the United Kingdom and one for Ireland. The English government funded the vaccine against cervical cancer while the Irish, for obvious reasons, didn't. The English version of the paper assaulted the British government for providing the vaccination while the Irish version attacked the government for not providing it!
Well, something like that is going on in Hungary. The left-liberals support the idea of the vaccination while the right-wingers attack it. Given the political atmosphere in Hungary perhaps only the MSZP-SZDSZ-MDF people will get vaccinated and the rest won't. After all, as Dési said, there is no vaccination against stupidity.