A current backlash against the H1N1 flu vaccine in Europe prompted the Council of Europe to hold hearings in January regarding the role of pharmaceutical companies and the World Health Organization (WHO) in declaring H1N1 a pandemic.
In reaction, WHO countered that allegations of undue influence from the pharmaceutical industry were “scientifically wrong and historically incorrect." The Jan. 22 statement emphasized the organization's reliance on independent international advisory bodies—with experts from the scientific and medical community—when categorizing the spread of disease and illness.
"This current influenza pandemic is a scientifically well-documented event in which the emergence and spread of a new influenza virus has caused an unusual epidemiological pattern of disease throughout the world,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, Special Adviser on Pandemic Influenza at WHO, at the Council of Europe's hearing on Jan. 26. "The labeling of the pandemic as ‘fake’ is to ignore recent history and science and to trivialize the deaths of over 14,000 people and the many additional serious illnesses experienced by others."
As the initial waves of H1N1 infection have decreased so has the public's interest in vaccine, leading many European countries to try to rid themselves of excess supplies. The United States has decided to hold on to its supply for now. Poland was the only country to outright reject the import of H1N1 flu vaccines over safety fears.
In a report to WHO’s Executive Board on Jan. 18, Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said the organization did not anticipate the public's widespread resistance to vaccination.
"The days when health officials could issue advice, based on the very best medical and scientific data, and expect populations to comply, may be fading," said Chan. "It may no longer be sufficient to say that a vaccine is safe, or testing complied with all regulatory standards, or a risk is real. In my view, this is a new communications challenge that we may need to address."
Full coverage of the World Health Organization’s response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic can be found here.
From WHO's "Statement of the World Health Organization on allegations of conflict of interest and 'fake' pandemic," Jan. 22:
Additional allegations that WHO created a 'fake' pandemic to bring economic benefit to industry are scientifically wrong and historically incorrect.
- Lab analyses showed that this influenza virus was genetically and antigenically very different from other influenza viruses circulating among people.
- Epidemiological information provided by Mexico, the U.S. and Canada demonstrated person-to-person transmission.
- Clinical information, especially from Mexico, indicated this virus also could cause severe disease and death. At the time, those reports did not indicate a pandemic situation, but taken together sent a very strong warning to WHO and other public health authorities to be ready for one.
- As the pandemic evolved, clinicians identified a very severe form of primary viral pneumonia, which was rapidly progressive and frequently fatal, that is not part of the disease pattern seen during seasonal influenza. While these cases were relatively rare, they imposed a heavy burden on intensive care units.
- Geographical spread was exceptionally rapid.
- On April 29, 2009, WHO reported lab confirmed cases in nine countries.
- About six weeks later, on June 11, WHO reported cases in 74 countries and territories in more than two WHO regions. It is this global spread which led WHO to call for increasing phases and finally, to announce that a pandemic was underway.
- By July 1, infections had been confirmed in 120 countries and territories.
Photo copyright: World Health Organization.