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Europe criticises WHO over swine flu ‘scare’

Council of Europe calls for safeguards against ‘undue influence by vested interests’ after review of World Health Organisation response to H1N1 pandemic
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks
young girl sneezing into tissue

25th June 2010 - The World Health Organisation (WHO) contributed to a “waste of large sums of public money and unjustified scares and fears about the health risks faced by the European public”, according to the Council of Europe.

The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) has endorsed the conclusions of its Health Committee which were issued earlier in June, saying there was “overwhelming evidence that the seriousness of the pandemic was vastly overrated by WHO”, resulting in a distortion of public health priorities.

The parliament identified “grave shortcomings” in the transparency of decision-making about the outbreak, generating concerns about the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on decisions taken. Plummeting confidence in such advice could prove “disastrous” in the case of a severe future pandemic, they said.

The Council says WHO has been “highly defensive”, and unwilling to accept that a change in the definition of a pandemic was made, or to revise its assessment of the Swine Flu outbreak.
The Assembly set out a series of urgent recommendations for greater transparency and better governance in public health, as well as safeguards against what it called “undue influence by vested interests”. It called for a public fund to support independent research, trials and expert advice. This, it says, could be partly financed by compulsory contributions from the pharmaceutical industry.
There was also a warning to the media to avoid “sensationalism and scaremongering in the public health domain”.

WHO response

The World Health Organisation has rejected the criticism, issuing a statement saying: “In every assessment of the pandemic, WHO consistently reminded the public that the overwhelming majority of patients experienced mild symptoms and made a rapid and full recovery, even without medical treatment.”

WHO says flu viruses are unstable and can undergo rapid and significant mutations, making it difficult to predict whether the moderate impact would be sustained: “This uncertainty, which persuaded WHO and many national health authorities to err on the side of caution, was further enforced by the behaviour of past pandemics, which varied in their severity during first and second waves of international spread.”

It also denies pandemic decisions were made to increase industry profits: “Allegations that WHO declared a pandemic to boost the profits of the pharmaceutical industry arise from WHO’s use of expert advisers and the way declarations of interest from these experts are handled. No evidence of any specific instance of wrongdoing has emerged from recent enquiries.”

It says it has safeguards in place to guard against conflicts of interest: “WHO has systems in place to protect the Organisation from advice biased by commercial interests. WHO requires all expert advisers to declare their professional and financial interests when they participate in advisory groups and consultations.

“WHO assesses declared interests to determine whether a potential conflict or a potential perception of conflict exists. Where necessary, WHO requests more detailed information and then decides on the appropriate action to be taken.”

Swine flu latest

There’s still a low level of swine flu infection in the UK. The Health Protection Agency says no one with H1N1 flu has been reported as admitted to hospital in the recent weeks. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 474 UK deaths reported due to pandemic.

Reviewed on June 25, 2010

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