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Reports criticize WHO for handling of H1N1 pandemic

I first became emotionally (as opposed to just historically) aware of the devastating 1918 flu pandemic many years ago while reading Mary McCarthy’s memoir, “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.” The book opens (as best I remember) with 6-year-old Mary boarding a train in Seattle with her three brothers and parents to start a new life in Minnesota. By the time the train pulls into Minneapolis a few days later, Mary and her siblings are orphans, their parents dead from the flu.

I was pregnant at the time I read that book, and had just moved to Minneapolis myself. So McCarthy’s poignant recollection of that pivotal event in her life (the Minnesota relatives who raised her for the next few years were cold and cruel — the opposite of her parents) made a visceral impression on me.

Since then, I’ve done a lot of reading about pandemics (and the science behind them), and I’m convinced that an outbreak as potentially deadly as that of 1918 (it killed an estimated 100 million people worldwide) remains a very real threat.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) may have difficulty persuading people of that danger in the future — and all because of the less-than-transparent way it handled the H1N1 pandemic this past year.

As reported in the Washington Post on Friday, two new reports accuse WHO of “exaggerating the threat posed by the [H1N1] virus and failing to disclose possible influence by the pharmaceutical industry on its recommendations for how countries should respond.”

One of the reports [PDF] — by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe — found that WHO’s response to the H1N1 virus “caused widespread, unnecessary fear and prompted countries to waste millions of dollars,” writes Post reporter Rob Stein.

The parable of the boy who cried wolf comes to mind.

The second report, a joint investigation by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, found that WHO “relied on advice from experts with ties to drug makers in developing the guidelines it used to encourage countries to stockpile millions of doses of antiviral medication,” writes Stein.

WHO officials deny both these charges. “The idea that we declared a pandemic when there wasn’t a pandemic is both historically inaccurate and downright irresponsible,” one WHO official told the Washington Post. “There is no doubt that this was a pandemic. To insinuate that this was not a pandemic is very disrespectful to the people who died from it.”

The official also downplayed both reports’ charges that drug companies’ were influencing WHO decisions. “We know that some experts that come to our committees have contact with industry,” he said. “It would be surprising if they didn’t because the best experts are sought by all organizations. We feel that the guidelines produced were certainly not subject to undue influence.”

These reports can’t be that easily dismissed, however. The all-too-cozy relationship between Big Pharma and WHO officials presents a serious conflict of interest — one that may dissuade the public from taking life-saving protective actions when the next 1918-like pandemic “wolf” is spotted.

For conflicts of interests like this play right into the hands of the anti-vaccine movement.

That is exactly what concerns the authors of both these investigative reports. “[WHO’s] lack of transparency and accountability will result in a plummet in confidence in the advice given by major public health institutions,” notes the Council of Europe’s report. “This may prove disastrous in the case of the next disease of pandemic scope — which may turn out to be much more severe than the H1N1 pandemic.”

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Comments (2)

Interesting comments; which begs a response.

WHO has very specific criteria as to if and when a "pandemic" is declared. This criteria was established by demand and participation of most country's of the world.

An additional rationale would be the belief that the next deadly pandemic will be the result of mutation or reasortment due to the combination of a weaker pandemic with a much more deadly influenza; such as H5N1. Yes, CDC and others have proven it can happen, and in the case of the USA, very serious and successful research has developed treatment, which is rapidly moving through the approval process to counter such an event.

Thus, quite obviously, it behooves us all to secure vaccinations against endemic and pandemic influenza's as they become available. One must note that it is governments who order these vaccines and make them available to the public.

I cannot help but wonder at the level of criticism and damnation, which would result if WHO and worldwide governments did not take these outbreaks seriously.

Be aware that the reductionist term "anti-vaccine" is also being used to pejoratively label reporters who question transparency in vaccine policymaking.

Another inappropriate use is to add insult to people paradoxically injured by vaccines, who receive no medical treatment from the CDC or compensation from vaccine manufacturers or the NVICP for the ripple effects of damaged health.

Yes, it behooves us to secure vaccinations against influenzas -- but only if authentic, functioning humanitarian measures are in place that accommodate vaccine injuries and ensure that researchers will prioritize their prevention.