GENEVA – A WHO-appointed group of experts published on Thursday a damning report on the UN agency’s handling of the H1N1 flu pandemic, saying that it failed to issue timely guidance and that its flu plans needed revision.
The independent experts, appointed by the World Health Organization to examine its management of the 2009-2010 pandemic, however, rejected claims that the UN agency was influenced by commercial interests in its decision to declare a pandemic.
The draft report released by the agency found that a “lack of a sufficiently robust, systematic and open set of procedures for disclosing, recognizing and managing conflicts of interest among expert advisors” had contributed to suspicions about the organisation’s interests.
But it also delivered a broader warning to the world about preparations and resources countries can mobilise against a flu pandemic.
“The unavoidable reality is that tens of millions of people would be at risk of dying in a severe global pandemic,” the report said.
“Unless this fundamental gap between global need and global capacity is closed, we invite future catastrophe.”
A key shortcoming at the UN health agency surrounded communication.
The WHO failed to dispel confusion even in the most basic definition of what constituted a pandemic, according to the experts.
“One online WHO document described pandemics as causing ‘enormous numbers of deaths and illness’, while the official definition of a pandemic was based only on the degree of spread,” they noted.
“When without notice or explanation, the WHO altered some of its online documents to be more consistent with its intended definition of a pandemic, the organization invited suspicion of a surreptitious shift in definition rather than an effort to make its descriptions of a pandemic more precise and consistent,” they added.
Overall, there was a “lack of timely guidance in all official languages of WHO” and a “lack of a cohesive, overarching set of procedures and priorities for publishing consistent and timely technical guidance”.
The group recommended that the health agency “revise its pandemic preparedness guidance” and simplify the structure of different alert phases.
The guidance should assess the risks and severity of a pandemic, it added, while the agency also needed to improve both routine and emergency communications to the public.
Overall, the experts found that “the world is ill prepared to respond to a severe influenza pandemic or to any similarly global, sustained, and threatening public health emergency”.
They also urged an agreement on access to vaccines and the sharing of viruses for research purposes.
Swine flu killed more than 18,449 people and affected some 214 countries and territories during the pandemic period, after it was uncovered in Mexico and the United States in April 2009.
The quick spread of the virus prompted the UN health agency to declare a pandemic on June 11, 2009 until August 10, 2010.