January 12, 2010

WHO Under Pressure To Defend Handling Of H1N1

The World Health Organization said on Tuesday it will examine its handling of the H1N1 pandemic after accusations by some politicians that it exaggerated the dangers of the virus under pressure from drug companies, Reuters reported.

WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told a news briefing that the United Nations health agency will review the way it dealt with the outbreak of swine flu once the pandemic has subsided.

"Criticism is part of an outbreak cycle. We expect and indeed welcome criticism and the chance to discuss it," she said.

Chaib also said the WHO's review would involve independent outside experts and its results would be made public, but added that it was too soon to say when the examination would take place or which experts would be involved.

The Council of Europe, a political forum of most European countries, will determine whether drug companies influenced public health officials to spend money unnecessarily on stockpiles of H1N1 vaccines.

The WHO took its work of providing independent advice to its 193 member states seriously, and guarded against the influence of vested interests, Chaib said.

Some countries have scaled back orders for H1N1 vaccines as it becomes clear that the outbreak, declared a global pandemic by the WHO in June, is not as severe as at first feared.

Governments will have an opportunity to question the WHO about H1N1 at a meeting of its 34-member board next week. The WHO's top flu expert, Keiji Fukuda, will brief the board on January 18 about the latest developments in the first influenza pandemic in more than 40 years.

The WHO said that developing countries still lack adequate access to both antivirals and vaccines despite donations from industrialized countries and drug makers. It said in a document prepared for the board that some 200 million doses of H1N1 vaccine and funding of some $12 million have been pledged to date.

"Significant progress in international solidarity has been achieved, through donations by developed countries and manufacturers, but overall access to antiviral medicines and vaccines in developing countries remains limited," it said.

H1N1 vaccine producers include drug companies GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Sanofi-Aventis.

Last week, the WHO delivered donated H1N1 vaccine to Mongolia and Azerbaijan, the first of 95 developing and middle-income countries targeted to receive supplies, as a way to provide those countries with enough vaccine to cover 10 percent of their populations, with health care workers a top priority.

The southern hemisphere countries struck by H1N1 last year are now broadly protected against new infections, and sickness levels are declining in much of the northern hemisphere, including North America where it first emerged last April, WHO officials said.

The WHO says swine flu has killed at least 12,799 people, but the real toll is much higher and will take several years to establish.


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