Swine Flu Didn’t Fly

The trend toward overestimated contagions continued with SARS, the 2002-2003 respiratory disease. Nail-biting projections led the world to spend $80 billion to stop an emergence that ultimately killed 800 people and made 8,000 sick. In 2005, avian, or bird flu, cost the US government a billion dollars in vaccines and billions more in preparation for future outbreaks. The WHO warned it could kill 150 million people, yet the Hitchcockesque ailment felled just 250 people worldwide.

Perhaps, doctors went along with the sloppily-conceived H1N1 vaccination campaign because they tend to see vaccines as the single greatest lifesaver in modern medicine. The general medical view is that administering vaccines is a wise precaution, especially when dealing with a disease that could mutate into a mass killer. But critics say this concern has to be balanced against the loss of public confidence in health authorities should a disease end up a blowout, the risk of side-effects in recipients of scantily tested drugs and the enormous cost of vaccines.

In retrospect, more doctors acknowledge that swine flu was oversold. The Intelligence firm Synovate released a survey of physicians on January 26, 2010, which found that 61 percent of all physicians in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, US, China, Taiwan and India felt the media over dramatized the H1N1 pandemic.

Corruption in Health Organizations?

Critics of the WHO say they promoted bad data to help drug makers get rich selling vaccines. This attack implies drug makers have a network of influence within the decision-making structure of the organization, a suggestion various officials confirm.

One high-level, long-term WHO employee, who preferred to remain anonymous for job security, described the WHO as follows: “WHO is infested by corruption. There is big corruption, like the management of H1N1, and there is small corruption; and between the big and the small corruption there is [corruption] in all imaginable forms. Unfortunately, it’s not only the WHO.”

Similar comments have come from other WHO insiders, such as William Aldis, a retired senior official who worked on the bird flu crisis. In a Huffington Post article from September 24, Aldis characterized the WHO’s handling of swine flu in the following way:

“I am concerned WHO’s communications is corrupted by the fact they push the buttons in the public’s brains that will raise the most funds. That is incompatible with what the organization should be doing: serving the public with technically correct factual information, pure and simple.”

Aldis Louise Voller, a journalist at the Danish Daily Information newspaper, has reported that pharmaceutical companies are present at meetings of WHO experts, and that purportedly independent scientists hired by the WHO are also consultants to the drug companies that make the vaccines.

On Tuesday, WHO’s Fukuda insisted that its swine flu scientists’ were not tainted by their private sector associations. The reason, he said, is that before each meeting, scientists are asked to declare all possible conflicts of interest. “These documents are gone over and examined. If there is some potential conflict of interest we go back and talk with them.”

While the WHO was initially set up to rely on funding from UN member countries, in recent years, this source has been rapidly overtaken by “voluntary contributions,” which are provided by the private sector, national governments and NGOs. According to the WHO’s 2008-2009 budget, $958 million was supplied by the UN, while three times as much – $3.2 billion – came from voluntary donations.

The WHO reports that only around 1 percent of these voluntary contributions come from the private sector, but the real total of private influence may be obscured. For example, companies can donate to foundations or NGOs which support their interests, thereby concealing the source of their contributions. According to internal WHO emails received by the British Medical Journal and described in a February 17, 2007, article, Benedetto Saraceno, the director of the WHO’s department of mental health and substance abuse, advised a patient group to accept money from GlaxoSmithKline and then pass it on to the WHO in order to mask the money’s origins.

Dr. Wodarg told the Council of Europe Tuesday that there has been dissent ever since the shift toward public-private partnership began in earnest in 2001.

“Already then there were very critical voices against the influence. [WHO’s] administration is made of people not well paid who can’t fight against the pay of people in and from the industry – they are simply swept aside … [private] influence is rampant and that is why we can’t understand why the WHO we used to love … has become unrecognizable to us.”

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