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28 March 2009

Indonesian Government Stops Trusting Drug Companies and Reconsiders Vaccinations for Children

Indonesia's controversial health minister says she wants to end vaccinating children against meningitis, mumps and some other diseases because she fears foreign drug companies are using the country as a testing ground.

Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari — who first drew widespread attention by boycotting the World Health Organization's 50-year-old virus sharing system in 2007 — said Tuesday she wanted "scientific proof" that shots for illnesses like pneumonia, chicken pox, the flu, rubella and typhoid were "beneficial".

"If not, they have to be stopped," she said, declining to say exactly what that would mean. "We don't want our country to be a testing place for drugs, as has been the case in Africa."

Supari said she still would advocate immunizations against measles, polio, tetanus, hepatitis B and tuberculosis.

Her statement comes at a time when Indonesia is struggling to contain outbreaks of preventable childhood illnesses.

Chronic funding problems and chaotic decentralization efforts since the 1998 ouster of longtime dictator Suharto have forced many local clinics in the poorest parts of the nation to scale back operations, reducing the time and money spent on education and routine immunizations.

The number of cases of measles, tuberculosis and other diseases has skyrocketed. Polio briefly re-emerged after a decade-long absence in 2005.

The U.N. children's agency said it would wait until the country officially changes its immunization policy before commenting.

"We are continuing to support the government as technical partners in their implementation of the evidence-based programs," said Anne Vincent at UNICEF.

Indonesia's health minister is no stranger to controversy — or conspiracy theories.

When she stopped sharing bird flu viruses with the international community two years ago she argued, among other things, that the U.S. government could use the samples to create a biological weapon. In November, she issued a decree banning foreign drug makers from selling products in Indonesia unless they build local production facilities.

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