Similar critiques have been leveled at domestic health authorities as well, which generally took their cues on how to deal with swine flu from the WHO.
In France, Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot was forced to a Paris court on January 4 over swine flu campaign irregularities – including ordering millions of unnecessary vaccine doses. Demonstrations over statistical improprieties have taken place in Scotland and Canada.
Inquiries into WHO misdoing are likely to plunge deep into the statistical methods for data collection, however, it takes no expertise to see that health agencies’ data about H1N1 was wildly misleading.
For example, a study released December 7 by the Harvard School of Public Health found that the CDC predicted that H1N1 mortality rates would be 80 to 500 times higher than they turned out to be – with the WHO doing only slightly better. The CDC also overshot the likelihood that pig flu causes serious illness by seven to nine times, the study found. Another study, done by the CDC itself and published in the New England Journal of Medicine on December 31, found that swine flu was far more difficult to transmit that it had initially claimed.
The larger question begged by health agencies’ bad data and the media’s dutiful reporting of it is this: if fears are overstated every time there’s a flu outbreak, when the public really does need a vaccine, who will believe the boys who cried wolf?
Should the European Council’s investigations conclude that the WHO deliberately incited H1N1 paranoia to help drug makers, it could spark reform of how infectious diseases are handled. The paramount questions experts will try to address are how dangerous a disease must become before a global vaccination campaign is advised, and when a disease should truly qualify as a “pandemic”.
Proof of direct corruption may be difficult for the Council to establish, but the string of clues which points to this corruption – as befits the trail of a wild pig – is not hard to follow.
Pandemic or Just Plain Panic?
Swine flu took center stage in June of 2009, when the WHO declared H1N1 the first “pandemic” in 42 years. It was this label that caught the eye of every health authority from Tampa to Timbuktu, and which revved drug company engines. But to do it, the WHO had to redefine the word.
One month after swine flu appeared in April, the WHO rewrote the definition of “pandemic.” Under the new meaning, a pandemic does not need to cause high numbers of death or illness. A month after changing the definition, with just 144 people dead from H1N1, the flu was given the WHO’s highest threat classification: a “stage-six pandemic alert.” By comparison, the mildest 20th century pandemic killed a million people.
Before the change, the WHO had classified a pandemic as a disease that has “simultaneous epidemics worldwide with enormous numbers of deaths and illness.” After the alteration, the organization’s web site stated, “Pandemics can be either mild or severe in the illness and death they cause.” In May, WHO spokesperson Natalie Boudou told CNN that the original definition was an error.
On Tuesday, the WHO’s Fukuda backed that assertion, saying, “Severe death has never been part of WHO’s pandemic [definition] – in earlier discussions it is often pointed out that severity may be high, but it has also been pointed out that they can be very low.”
Moving ahead, Fukuda said his organization “will definitely consider whether we can define things better.” Some participants wondered why the WHO hasn’t already come up with a better definition, since complaints about the change have poured in from all sides.
The Associated Press reported on May 19, 2009, “China, Britain, Japan and other countries urged the World Health Organization on Monday to be very cautious about declaring the arrival of a swine flu pandemic, fearing that a premature announcement could cause worldwide panic and confusion.”