World Health Organisation under swine flu spotlight

Experts from around the globe are to investigate whether the World Health Organisation caused undue panic when responding to the 2009 swine flu outbreaks.

The United Nation’s body incrementally increased its Pandemic Alert Level during 2009, eventually reaching the highest level - Phase 6 – and branding the spread of the A (H1N1) virus a “pandemic” on June 11th.

A number of governments from around the world lobbied the World Health Organisation (WHO) against this decision, but were subsequently ignored.

As the disease spread the tourism sector – particularly in Mexico – was negatively impacted, as national governments began to advise against unnecessary travel.

Relatively Mild

However, the disease turned out to be relatively mild – claiming roughly 15,000 lives around the globe, compared to initially estimates running into hundreds of thousands – prompting a review of WHO decisions.

An independent review will now be conducted by 30 scientists and health chiefs, with initial findings scheduled to be presented to United Nations member states in May 2010, explained the WHO’s top flu official, Keiji Fukuda.

The WHO will argue the definition of “pandemic” states the virus must have spread from human-to-human, and from one continent to another. The term also suggests nothing with regard to how dangerous the virus is.

However, Mr Fukuda now acknowledges the term may have caused undue distress.

Discussing “what is the best way to convey the magnitude of risk” will be a key issue for the group, explained the WHO scientist, particularly with a view to improving communication during future disease outbreaks.

“A lot of attention will be spent on how do you do that in a way that is clear in Egypt, London or Anchorage, Alaska,” he added.

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Ongoing Concern

The decision to investigate the outbreaks comes against a continuing threat from the virus.

In the south-east of the United States – particularly Georgia - a continuing threat from the influenza strain has been acknowledged by federal officials.

“Although H1N1 flu activity is still low in most of the country, flu-related hospitalisations in Georgia have, since the beginning of February, been higher than they were in October at the height of the second wave of the flu,” explained Dr Anne Schuchat, director of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDCP) National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases.

English fans travelling to this summer’s World Cup in South Africa have also been urged to ensure they are vaccinated against the strain.

Recorded incidences in the UK are presently running at low levels, but the flu season is due to begin in the southern hemisphere during the tournament.

England’s chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, said “The next flu season in the southern hemisphere will be starting soon and the pandemic flu virus is expected to return.

“Travellers should protect themselves by getting the vaccine well before they travel.