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AFP Reflects On WHO’s Response To H1N1

Agence France-Presse examines the WHO’s response to H1N1 (swine flu) one year since the virus was first reported in Mexico and the U.S. “A year on, questions linger as to whether a decision by the World Health Organization to declare swine flu a pandemic, thereby unleashing the slew of health measures, was over-dramatic or even tainted by commercial interests,” the news service writes.

“The WHO’s decision resulted ‘in the disruption, the changing of priorities in health services which were concentrating on swine flu instead of concentrating on matters which were far more important to save lives,'” said Paul Flynn, a British parliamentarian who led a Council of Europe inquiry on the WHO’s handling of H1N1. “Flynn noted that huge sums were spent on anti-virals and vaccines, which went largely wasted as skeptical populations refused to get vaccinated,” the news service adds.

The article highlights the “big winners in the flu episode – pharmaceutical firms,” including “Novartis and Roche,” which “both reported exceptional results last year thanks to the unexpected boost from vaccine or flu medication orders.” It also looks at criticisms by some that the WHO’s strategy was influenced by the pharmaceutical industry. Despite such criticisms, the AFP notes “many scientists jumped to the defense of the WHO.” 

Virologist and Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and Dentistry Professor John Oxford said, “A lot of the criticism is political. I’ve not heard criticism from any virologist.”

Still, some “believe that the swine flu episode may have done more harm to the WHO than good,” AFP writes. “The great danger is that the world will say, ‘You cried wolf, You frightened us about things that didn’t happen,’ and that the authority of the WHO could be undermined,” said Flynn. “If there is a very dangerous virus in future, no one might take notice of the warning and people could die.”

The WHO last week concluded the first meeting of a probe into its H1N1 response. A report on the probe is scheduled to be released this fall, according to the news service (Rijckaert, 4/20).