It might be a case of better late than never. Georgia is due to receive its first batch of Swine Flu vaccine, just as the influenza season is drawing to a close.
Georgia has not been particularly hard-hit by the H1N1 virus so far. The country has officially recorded less than 1,300 cases of Swine Flu since July, 2009, when the first diagnosis was registered. Even so, the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health has attributed 33 deaths to the virus.
Tengiz Tsertsvadze, head of the Infectious Pathologies, AIDS and Clinical Immunology Center in Tbilisi, said that Georgian government took aggressive and effective action to prevent an H1N1 epidemic. "There have been good mechanisms put in place for early detection and treatment of the virus. ... Compared to other countries in the region, [Georgian] authorities managed to contain the virus' spread."
Approximately 100,000 doses of a vaccine produced by the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline are expected to arrive in Georgia by the end of March. A vaccination program is still being developed.
The relatively late appearance of a vaccine appears to be related to several factors in Georgia. For one, there seems to be strong doubts within the Georgian medical establishment that a vaccine is most financially efficient way to combat the H1N1 virus. Many believe that powerful international pharmaceutical companies have an interest in stoking worries about swine flu.
"H1N1 is just another A-type influenza that appears every flu season" one Tbilisi doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity, told EurasiaNet.
Officially, Georgian authorities would not clear a vaccine for use in Georgia until it gained World Health Organization approval. "We wanted to make sure that the WHO says that these vaccines, which are new, are safe and effective for use," said Paata Imnadze, the director of the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDCPH). Georgia is obtaining the vaccines under a WHO program to help immunization efforts in developing countries.
While public clinics in Georgia waited for NCDCPH to provide flu vaccines, no private clinic in the country would offer immunization against H1N1. Why this was the case is the subject of debate. The Tbilisi doctor who spoke to EurasiaNet contended that a vaccine ban had been put into place. Officials steadfastly deny this, but add that there were always stringent regulations governing the importation of vaccines.
"They could bring in the vaccines as long as they had been manufactured and approved by the United States or the European Union," Deputy Health Minister Nikoloz Pruidze said. "You could not bring the vaccines made, say, by China or Russia, as these vaccines need to be tested locally ... Only medication that is manufactured to the United States or EU standard could have been brought in."
The Tbilisi doctor suggested that politics may have played a role in delaying the arrival of a vaccine. Had private clinics imported the vaccines, an immunization costing $30-$40 would have been beyond the reach of most Georgians. That might have created popular pressure for the government to subsidize vaccinations for the general population. "This would have seriously strained the national budget and would have drawn public resources away from other important health programs," the Tbilisi doctor claimed.