WHO Addresses Media Misconceptions About H1N1 Pandemic

Emma Hitt, PhD

January 14, 2010

January 14, 2010 — Several "misconceptions" about the H1N1 influenza pandemic were addressed at today's press conference held by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Dr. Keiji Fukuda, special adviser on pandemic influenza to the director-general, addressed 4 issues pertaining to the H1N1 pandemic: whether this is a real pandemic, whether the definition of the pandemic has changed, whether the WHO overplayed the pandemic, and whether the WHO was inappropriately influenced by the pharmaceutical industry.

Regarding whether the H1N1 influenza outbreak resulted in a real pandemic, Dr. Fukuda noted that the answer is very clearly yes. "The allegation by some that the H1N1 pandemic is fake is both scientifically wrong and historically inaccurate," he said.

To date, 13,000 deaths worldwide have been attributed to H1N1, although Dr. Fukuda noted that the final estimate will be much larger. He also pointed out that calling the pandemic fake is "somewhat disrespectful" to the people affected by the pandemic, as well as to the healthcare workers who participated in the effort.

Dr. Fukuda also maintained that the WHO has not changed its definition of a "pandemic," which is defined as the worldwide spread of disease. Guidelines were developed in 1999, and scientists worked with the WHO to revise the definition in 2005 and in 2009. "There is discussion about these pandemic definitions, and there is some continual attempt to try to make them clearer, but severity itself was not part of the definition."

He also stated that the WHO has not overplayed the pandemic. When Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO director-general, first announced the H1N1 as a pandemic, she stated that the pandemic would be of "moderate" severity, Dr. Fukuda pointed out.

"From the very beginning, WHO has gone out of its way to let everybody know that the future course of the pandemic was uncertain." He added that this remains as true today as it did back then and that the WHO has been very consistent in the information that it has given. "We've worked very hard to neither overplay nor underplay the situation."

According to Dr. Fukuda, the severity of H1N1 can change midstream, so "we have adopted a precautionary approach — preparing for the worst and hoping for the best."

Last, he denied that the WHO has been influenced by the pharmaceutical industry. Although the WHO reached out to a variety of scientists and experts, including those in industry, experts providing advice are required to provide full disclosure, he said. "Any allegations of conflicts of interest are taken very seriously by the WHO, and we respond immediately and appropriately to them."

The WHO will be conducting a self-review process regarding H1N1 influenza, which Dr. Fukuda said is something that any organization that cares about its performance would do. In addition, the Council of Europe has asked the WHO to participate in hearings about pandemic influenza.

"I want to emphasize the world is going through a real pandemic." he said. "WHO has been balanced and truthful in the information it has provided" and has taken great care to "make sure that the advice received has not been unduly influenced by commercial or non–public health interests."


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