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WHO & Pharma under fire over swine flu

Posted by medconsumers on April 2, 2010

Before the faux swine flu pandemic fades from memory, consider this: One country—Poland—made the decision not to knuckle under to the pharmaceutical industry and buy H1N1 swine flu vaccines for its citizens. Dr. Ewa Kopacz, who is Poland’s minister of health, decided against a national vaccination campaign for several good reasons. She was not convinced that the vaccines were completely safe. Furthermore, the H1N1 flu appeared to be relatively mild in the countries of the southern hemisphere where the flu season was coming to an end. But it was the “conditions of purchase” that confirmed her decision. She was told by the vaccine companies that only the government could purchase their products—-vaccines would not be sold to clinics or anyone in Poland.

The price of each vaccine would be two to three times the cost of the yearly seasonal vaccine, though Dr. Kopacz knew the H1N1 vaccine is based on exactly the same technology. What’s more, it was not known at the time whether people would need one or two vaccines for full protection. And most outrageous: the Polish government was expected to sign a contract, stating that anyone injured by a vaccine would be the government’s responsibility. (Note: the U.S. government had long ago accepted this one-sided agreement.) Poland had fewer swine flu deaths this season and the virus was less virulent than in other countries. Though only half the vaccines in the U.S. were used, the estimated number of U.S. flu deaths this season was the lowest in years.

For standing up to the vaccine companies’ threats of dire consequences of her decision, Dr. Kopacz was the star of a hearing conducted on Monday by the Council of Europe in Paris, and attended by members of parliament. The gathering aimed its initial ire at the World Health Organization (WHO) for its changing definitions of pandemic and its alarmist warnings that were described as a “monumental mistake.” The result: a huge waste of money, unnecessary fear and anxiety; and a distortion of health services. Several speakers listed other pandemics like SARS, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (“mad cow”) and the avian (bird) flu that never lived up to the threat level announced by WHO. “Not a single person died from the avian flu in my country,” said the professor who was the former head of the French Red Cross. It is like the boy who cried ‘wolf,’ warned Paul Flynn, MP from the U.K, “If a truly dangerous virus does emerge some day, few people will take notice of it. The trust in the WHO has been undermined and it must be rebuilt.”

The WHO was the proverbial empty chair at this meeting because it declined the invitation and, the MPs said, had cloaked itself in secrecy at a prior meeting which was the first attempt to get answers to questions like: who decides that something is a ‘phase-6 pandemic’? And based on what evidence? (Another meeting, this time with WHO representatives, is planned for April 15 in Geneva.) Dr. Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Collaboration spoke of how little reliable scientific evidence there is—not only to support vaccine use but also for understanding influenza itself. “The randomized trials that have been conducted are too small and too short [in duration],” he said, referring to vaccine trials that are usually funded by companies that make the vaccines. “The harms are not even looked for. We can’t answer the question of whether vaccines are safe.” Dr. Jefferson called for a large taxpayer-funded multi-country vaccine trial to fill the serious information gaps about vaccine effectiveness and possible harms.

As the hearing went on, the pharmaceutical industry became the major target. Several speakers called for more scrutiny of the pharmaceutical industry’s influence on health policy. They know that billions of pounds and Euros were spent on vaccines and unproven antiviral drugs like Tamiflu, and now they want to know who profited from WHO decisions. There must be more scrutiny of WHO’s key opinion leaders, especially those who fanned the flames of pandemic fears while taking pharmacuetical industry consulting fees. (Though unmentioned at this hearing, one H1N1 key advisor to WHO has been under investigation for personally profiting from the vaccination. Click here for more.)

Dr. Marek Twardowski, Poland’s undersecretary of state, ministry of health, brought the discussion back to the vaccine companies’ preposterous contract that his country was expected to sign. “Your governments did in fact sign contracts that shifted the responsibility for vaccine-related harm to your governments, and these agreements were made in confidence [i.e., secret],” he told the MPs. “As of March of this year, none of the vaccine companies brought their products into your countries under normal marketing conditions. Can you imagine if car companies like Toyota decided that they will only sell their cars to a government and then when a serious defect shows up like the Toyota’s accelerator problem, the taxpayers are expected to pay for it?” This is an “extremely dangerous precedent,” he said. “And I hope that today’s deliberations result in this never happening again.”

It’s hard to imagine such a conversation taking place in the U.S. Congress, which is bought and paid for by the pharmaceutical industry. And it’s unlikely many Americans know that vaccine companies already made sure the government pays for injuries caused by their products. In the wake of 9/11, Congress passed a federal law that allows vaccine companies to be protected from liability in the event of a vaccine-related injury. Authorities need only declare a public health emergency for the protection to go into effect. And if you think that the vaccine companies need protection from lawsuits to continue making vaccines, see this Bush-era press release from Public Citizen: “Flu Vaccine Shortage: Another Example of How Bush Dis-Torts the Truth About Lawsuits”

Click here to see the Webcast of the March 29 Council of Europe hearing.

Maryann Napoli, Center for Medical Consumers©ISSN 2155-1480

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One Response to “WHO & Pharma under fire over swine flu”

  1. david rasman said

    this should be front page news all over the world. so why is it not?

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