H1N1 Experts Assail 'Fake' Pandemic Claim

The World Health Organization says its response to the H1N1 influenza pandemic could have been better, but it was not unduly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry, nor was it swept away by media hype.

"We are under no illusions that this response was the perfect response," Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the agency's top flu expert, told a hearing being held by the Council of Europe's health committee.

But, he added, "the influenza pandemic policies and responses recommended and taken by WHO were not improperly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry."

The council's hearing is a response to criticism by some European politicians, as well as sections of the media, that the danger of the H1N1 pandemic was exaggerated, perhaps to allow drug companies to score multi-million-dollar contracts for vaccines and anti-viral drugs.

In North America, many experts defended the response to the outbreak, which last June WHO declared a phase six pandemic -- the highest level. The phases reflect that a disease is widely spread and causing disease in the community, but say nothing about the severity of the disease.

"I do not believe that the record supports the claim that health officials in the U.S. or WHO exaggerated the threat," said Dr. Andy Pavia of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Pavia said in an email that health officials had a choice -- to assume the threat was small, or to react strongly.

"The choice is obvious," Pavia said, "and I would not want to be in a position of explaining to the families of victims why we planned for the mildest outcome."

For the most part, illness caused by the disease has been mild, although several thousand people around the world have died and many more had disease serious enough to require intensive care.

But the relatively low number of deaths has prompted Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg, a German member of the council's Parliamentary Assembly, to dub the outbreak a "false pandemic" and call for this week's hearing.

"What we have experienced now is that millions of people have been vaccinated unnecessarily," Wodarg said. "This is damage done to people, in order to earn money."

Fukuda, on the other hand, said today the pandemic "is a scientifically well-documented event."

"The labeling of the pandemic as 'fake' is to ignore recent history and science," he said, "and to trivialize the deaths of over 14,000 people and the many additional serious illnesses experienced by others."

Utah's Pavia echoed that sentiment. Ask any front-line doctor if the H1N1 flu was mild, he said, "and prepare to get your head handed to you."

Indeed, "as a physician who saw many patients with this disease, I believe it was very serious in many people," said Dr. Daniel Hinthorn of the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.

"The threat was not exaggerated, at least to my mind," he said in an email.

Even last month, as flu activity in the U.S. declined, he said his hospital treated 11 inpatients for the flu, including six in intensive care, while "lots of others" were being seen in emergency wards and clinics.

On the other hand, to say the threat was exaggerated "is merely to say the obvious," argued Philip Alcabes of City University of New York. By the time a vaccine was available, "this outbreak was far less serious than feared," he said in an email.

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