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Vaccinations against flu proving to be hard sell

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Nov. 12, 2009, 10:53 p.m. | Ukraine — by Peter Byrne
Officials fear vaccine fears could make epidemic much worse. In their efforts to contain an escalating flu epidemic and prevent a potentially bigger wave of infections early next year, Ukraine’s political elite and health-care professionals are desperately trying to revive trust in the nation’s vaccination program.

That trust was broken with a rare vaccine-related death of a child in May who was innoculated against measles. The incident sparked a nationwide scandal. In the confusion, hundreds of thousands of citizens refused to get vaccines for flu and other illnesses in the ensuing panic, sparking health officials back then to warn of a pending flu epidemic. And, as a result, a combination of seasonal flu and the A/H1N1 strain hit the nation particularly hard in recent weeks, health experts said.

Referring to the much-publicized vaccine scandal from early this year, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on Nov. 9 that the country’s “vaccination program has been completely destroyed.”

“We will be faced with more difficult problems” if citizens do not regain trust in the country’s vaccination program in coming months, she added.

The socially disruptive measures – closing of schools and banning of public gatherings – that were introduced on Oct. 30 by Tymoshenko’s government helped to mitigate infection rates. Still, health officials said that as of Nov. 11 more than 1 million Ukrainians were registered with flu-related illnesses, while more than 200 had died since October 29.

It is less clear, however, whether Ukrainian officials have enough time to identify and procure the necessary vaccines to prevent a bigger flu epidemic from hitting early next year, just as the country’s voters line up at polling booths to choose their next president.

Health Ministry officials say such vaccines could arrive around the first round of voting, which is on Jan. 17. If massive vaccination does not take off by then, Ukraine could be hammered even harder by a resurging flu epidemic.

Overall, Ukraine’s political leaders have provided less than ringing endorsements for mass inoculation. They remain at loggerheads, treating the flu epidemic as a political football, each blaming one another for mishandling the epidemic.

President Victor Yushchenko on Nov. 11 said he would not support legislation doling out Hr 1 billion in funding to help Tymoshenko’s government purchase anti-flu medicines and equipment. She shot back accusing him of “killing his own voters.”

But the president on Nov. 9 did reaffirm his support for nationwide vaccination and appealed to the World Health Organization to provide 16-17 million doses of a vaccine against the A/H1N1 virus. While the WHO has not responded to the request, the organization’s stated goal is to provide developing countries with enough vaccine to immunize at least 10 percent of their population. Deployment of the first supplies of vaccines to these countries is expected to take place from now through February.

Vaccines do cause side effects, and, in rare instances, the side effects can be serious. In particular, people who are already ill with another infection should avoid vaccines. But fearing vaccines more than the illnesses they prevent can be dangerous, health experts say.

Vaccines developed over the last 50 years have slashed the death rates of nearly a dozen infectious diseases, such as small pox, measles, polio, hepatitis and the mumps. Vaccinations against these and other infectious diseases are required in many countries, including Ukraine, for school enrollment and military service. Flu vaccination, here and elsewhere, remains voluntary.

A feature article in the November issue of The Atlantic Magazine, titled “Does the Vaccine Matter,” drew attention to several epidemiologists and influenza specialists who maintain that much of what we know about fighting the flu is wrong. They insisted that it is silly to put faith in the power of vaccines. But the overwhelming majority of pediatricians and epidemiologists worldwide say the best and safest way people can protect themselves against flu-related illnesses is to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated.
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