Did WHO Cry “Wolf?”

The World Health Organization is enduring intense criticism for the way it handled H1N1.  I would agree that the organization is in a difficult position because likely it is only a matter of time before and dramatic form of pandemic appears.  

Nevertheless, to sound the alarm too many times risks the public ignoring warning when a lethal form of pandemic appears.  I do not envy the position of the officials at WHO.

By the way, does anybody out there want to buy large quantities of H1N1 vaccine?

….WHO repeatedly violated Sherlock Holmes’ warning, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence.” And the pandemic alert was doubly strange, given that ordinary seasonal flu sweeps the world annually, is invariably far more lethal than the currently circulating low-virulence H1N1, and certainly meets the WHO’s definition of a pandemic: infections over a wide geographic area and affecting a large proportion of the population.

Ironically, the appearance of the H1N1 flu during the past nine months might be thought of as a net public-health benefit, because it appears to have suppressed, or at least supplanted, the far more virulent and lethal seasonal flu strains. During the second week of January, 3.7% of Americans tested positive for the seasonal flu, compared to 11.5% during the same week in 2009. The official death toll worldwide from H1N1 is under 14,000, while seasonal flu kills about 36,000 on average in the United States and hundreds of thousands elsewhere.

Most flu and public-health experts consider the WHO to have been overly alarmist. The decision in April 2009 to raise the pandemic flu threat to the penultimate level, Phase 5 (“Pandemic Imminent”), already raced far ahead of the accumulated data, so the Phase 6 declaration in June revealed the organization’s paradigm to be fundamentally flawed. A warning system based solely on how widely a virus has spread, but that does not consider the nature and severity of the illness it causes, would classify as “pandemics” not only seasonal flu, but also the frequent but largely inconsequential outbreaks of virus-caused colds and gastroenteritis, for example. (The WHO has never explained why these obvious examples do not meet their criteria.)

False alarms make the “pandemic under way” designation almost meaningless and diminish its usefulness. And that, in turn, has important consequences: as Jack Fisher, a professor of surgery at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, observed, “Keep crying ‘wolf,’ and WHO can expect lower than customary compliance with flu vaccine advisories next fall.” Worse, imagine what would happen when we encounter a genuinely dangerous new pathogen, such as a strain of H5N1 avian flu (which in its current form has a mortality rate more than 100 times higher than H1N1) that is easily transmissible between humans….

via The Pandemic That Wasn’t – Project Syndicate.

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