WHO official denies exaggeration about dangers of swine flu pandemic

Keiji Fukuda is assistant director general of the WHO.
Keiji Fukuda is assistant director general of the WHO. (Anja Niedringhaus - AP)
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By Rob Stein
Friday, January 15, 2010

A top World Health Organization official dismissed charges Thursday that the agency exaggerated the threat posed by the H1N1 virus and that it had been unduly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry to issue dire warnings about the swine flu pandemic.

"The world is going through a real pandemic. The description of it as a fake is both wrong and irresponsible," Keiji Fukuda, the special adviser to the WHO director general on pandemic influenza, told reporters during a briefing. "WHO has been balanced and truthful in the information it has provided to the public. It has not underplayed and not overplayed the risk it poses to the public.

"We did take very great care that the advice it received is not unduly influenced."

Fukuda's defense of the Geneva-based arm of the United Nations came as the agency has received increasing criticism, primarily in Europe, that it overstated the threat posed by the virus, which emerged last spring in Mexico and the United States. The criticisms have prompted the Council of Europe to launch an investigation of the WHO's actions.

The agency estimates that the pandemic has directly killed at least 13,000 people worldwide already, and that number could eventually turn out to be "much larger" once the pandemic is over, Fukuda said.

Although so far the pandemic has turned out to be relatively mild, Fukuda warned that it is not over. The number of cases is dropping in many countries, but the virus continues to spread and activity is increasing in some parts of the world, including areas of northern Africa, southern Asia and Eastern Europe.

Another wave could come in the Northern Hemisphere in late winter or early spring, as has occurred in previous pandemics, Fukuda said, and more illness and deaths could occur in the Southern Hemisphere.

Finally, Fukuda said the agency has strict rules in place requiring anyone who provides advice to the WHO to disclose any financial conflicts of interest, including any ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

"Has the WHO been influenced by industry? The answer is no," he said. "To protect the integrity of the advice given to WHO and remain free from undue influence, WHO has had in place routine protections against conflict of interest. This is true for a long time but also during this particular pandemic."

The WHO's aggressive defense comes as several countries in Europe have announced plans to cut back on vaccine orders, partly because only one vaccination is needed instead of the two anticipated, but also because of the relative mildness of the illness.

Fukuda warned against second-guessing the decision to buy vaccine and urged people to continue to get vaccinated, especially those at high risk of severe illness from the virus.

"There are still a large number of people out there at high risk for serious complications from this infection," he said.

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