Processing Magazine

Nations urge WHO to change swine flu assessment

May 18, 2009
China, Britain, Japan and other countries urged the World Health Organization to be very cautious about declaring the arrival of a swine flu pandemic, fearing that a premature announcement could cause worldwide panic and confusion, according to the Associated Press. The result was WHO bending to their wishes. As the agency opened its annual meeting, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said she had listened carefully to the concerns of member states and would follow their instructions. Raising the flu alert to phase 6 -- the highest level -- could needlessly trigger costly and potentially risky actions such as a switch from seasonal to pandemic vaccine even though the virus so far appears to be mild. Right now the alert level is at phase 5, meaning a global outbreak is "imminent." Chan repeated her warning that the new swine flu virus continues spreading rapidly and could pose a grave threat to humanity even though the fatality rate was low, with 76 deaths out of 8,829 cases and no major outbreaks outside North America. A pandemic announcement would likely have severe economic consequences: it could trigger expensive trade and travel restrictions like border closures, airport screenings and quarantines, as countries not yet affected struggle to keep the virus out. Governments may also fear outbreaks of mass panic, social disruption and increased pressures on their health systems. Among the countries urging WHO to reconsider its pandemic scale was Mexico, which has suffered the most deaths and virtually shut down its economy for several days in response to the outbreak. He also said the epidemic was not over in Mexico. At least 40 countries have now confirmed cases, with Japan reporting the largest jump to over 130 in the space of four days. Most of the new cases involved high school students in the western prefectures of Hyogo and Osaka who had not traveled overseas. Seasonal flu kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide each year. Stopping vaccine production for that strain could actually lead to more deaths that would occur from swine flu. So far the virus appears to be mild, though scientists are concerned that many of the more severe symptoms have turned up in younger people. Flu is normally most dangerous to babies and the elderly. Chan also noted that the disease could combine with other flu strains currently circulating around the world, including the lethal H5N1 bird flu virus that has so far struggled to transmit among humans. Chan and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are scheduled to meet with senior representatives of pharmaceutical companies soon to discuss the vaccine question. Key questions that need to be answered include: how soon can a pandemic vaccine be produced, and how much of it will be available to each country. Many governments, including Britain, have already signed large advance orders, potentially depriving poorer countries of a chance to buy their own stock.