False alarm?


Serious allegations have been levelled against the World Health Organisation (WHO) for over-hyping the magnitude of the threat posed by the H1N1 virus. The UN health body had declared the H1N1 flu as a pandemic and raised a phase-6 alert, the highest last year. Critics are now accusing it of exaggerating the threat, of faking the pandemic. They have even alleged that WHO’s policies were influenced by vaccine manufacturers who profited from the panic triggered by the pandemic alert.

WHO’s director-general Margaret Chan had declared that all of humanity is under threat. This, within weeks of the outbreak of the flu in Mexico. Scenarios even likened the H1N1 pandemic to a 1918 flu epidemic that killed around 100 million people worldwide. Nine months after the H1N1 first made its presence felt and has taken the lives of 14,000 people worldwide — India alone accounting for 1,152 deaths so far — there is a feeling that WHO might have indeed exaggerated or at the least, over-reacted to the virus’ deadliness.

It is possible that allegations against WHO are unfair. With public health crises, one can never be too careful. It is always better to be safe than sorry. Besides, there is a problem with WHO’s pandemic rating system, which is based on geographic spread of the virus and not its severity. With WHO now admitting that the pandemic was not as serious as anticipated there is a need for it to examine the systems with which it is operating.

More worrying is the allegation that WHO had an ulterior agenda in pressing the panic button. It is believed that some of its officials might have raised the alert level under the influence of pharmaceutical companies eyeing windfall gains. The WHO alert prompted governments to stock up on vaccines. With the pandemic turning out to be not quite as serious, the vaccine manufactures have made handsome profits. India is among several countries that have demanded answers from WHO as to why it exaggerated the H1N1 threat. WHO owes the world an explanation. The role of pharmaceutical companies in influencing its decisions must be investigated. If WHO doesn’t come clean on the issue, there is a danger that next time there is a serious global health crisis, WHO will not be taken seriously by the international community.

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