Hungary: Flu Vaccination as “the Great Hungarian Experiment”

The vaccination campaign of the Hungarian National Public Health and Medical Officer Service (ÁNTSZ) has inspired a public debate among the institution itself, doctors, politicians and ordinary people who are just not sure whether the Hungarian-made swine flu vaccine is good or not.

Hungarian news sites report (HUN) on the “vaccine tourism” from Slovakia to the pharmacies at the border and news agencies confirm that Hungary doesn't plan to seal its borders with the neighboring Ukraine (see the latest GV post about Ukraine and swine flu here).

Observer, a Hungarian blogger living in Kyiv, wrote a post (HUN) about her trip to Budapest:

In Pest, I came home for one week. Arriving to Borispol Airport, I put on a mask: I got it in store from a Hungarian colleague and kept it for the airport. There were fewer people at the airport than on an ordinary Friday. […] The number of passengers has decreased, it can be seen from the traffic of the border crossing points, the number of those leaving the country decreased by 23%, and of foreigners entering by 40%.

The ground service crew was working in “maskara”, but most of the passengers weren't wearing masks. It had been part of our preparations, that we'd vaccinated ourselves with Hungarian serum (yes, I have read the enormous debate on the net about the Hungarian vaccine, I had called up two doctors in Hungary – none of them had dissuaded me – in my judgment the risk there [in Ukraine] is bigger than the risk of the Hungarian vaccine – I thought rather to face the latter). […]

One part of the “enormous debate” mentioned by Observer is between the authorities and general practitioner doctors. One of them, Gyula Keszthelyi MD, a family practitioner in eastern Hungary, attracted the attention by his blog (HUN) where next to writing about prevention (HUN), and informing parents (HUN) about their right of not answering the letters they get from their children's school – which imply they're obliged to vaccinate their children while in Hungary it's not in the category of obligatory vaccination – in several posts he pointed at the mistakes ÁNTSZ is committing in its vaccination campaign. This generated a movement against his functioning. A Hungarian weekly Heti Válasz published an article on his case:

[…] 50 years ago, Mr Keszthelyi would just have been a village doctor, quietly grumbling under his breath and complaining to the elderly ladies among his patients. Today – thanks to, the debating website he set up – his influence on people is comparable to that of the Hungarian Pandemic Commission. Tens of thousands of laymen read his fuming remarks on the site. In addition, he is also a regular visitor adding comments to several internet forums visited by other members of the profession, where the contradictory actions of the government are critically analysed to the tiniest detail. Keszthelyi found himself in the middle of a whole movement, when Ferenc Falus, the National Medical Officer threatened him with a fine of HUF 1 million and the withdrawal of his license, because he refused to administer the state-provided flu vaccines for free. […]

It wasn't only Dr. Keszthelyi who raised the question of administration and of the origin of the Hungarian-made vaccines, but also a consumer protection-blog Tékozló homár had a post (HUN) on it:

[…] The hospitals and pharmacies, anyway, didn't want to receive the vaccines delivered without an expiration date, since it's illegal like that, but the stuff should be sold out if the state had already paid for it. […]

Dr. Gergely (Greg) Bognar, assistant professor at the Center for Bioethics at New York University also reacted (HUN) through his blog dealing with bioethics questions on the swine flu debate turned to party politics, and raised the thought of a big experimentation:

[…] According to fresh research, voters supporting the governing party are rather on the side of vaccination than those of the opposition. […]

Politicians helped a lot for the population in knowing the way about the question: while the prime minister and the minister of health care vaccinated themselves in public, Péter Szijjártó, the deputy-floor leader of FIDESZ [party in opposition now], “considering every circumstance” won't vaccinate himself. […]

Why is the set-up of things like this lucky? Well, the situation is that there's a big question mark related to vaccines against flu. The question is not whether they're harmful – experts agree that they're harmless – but whether they're useful, and if yes, then how far. Does the defense against the new flu really worth 6 billion forints for a society? How efficient are the vaccines against flu financially? […]

We can try with not doing a clinical examination, but vaccinating half of the population, and the other half not, and then keeping the tabs on how many are getting ill, or dying from these two groups. […]

But this kind of research is not free of ethical problems either. […]

I suppose, it's already clear where I'm leading up to. The Hungarian society voluntarily, with enormous self-devotion, by the wise encouragement of politicians started an experiment similar to the one in Tuskegee. The population is dividing itself into two groups by political party sympathy: one group is getting the vaccine, the other, as a volunteer control group, is not.

The experiment plan is very promising, since ten million subject in a research is fair enough to exclude every kind of disturbing circumstances, and the distribution following party sympathy is more or less random. So everything is given to get serious scientific results from the Great Hungarian Experiment!

So it's not by chance that the world is looking at us with great attention. Observers will be sent by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prestigious periodicals as the New England Journal of Medicine, or the Nature, will report on the newest results. […]


  • Hey, I think you missed a very important point/angle here. Hungarian doctors are propagandizing against the vaccine for another reason, and this reason may actually trump whatever concerns they have about the efficacy of the vaccine: because they don’t get extra money to give it to people, either in terms of official payouts from the state, or unofficial bribes from patients. In other words, its a question of business interests.

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