Editorial: Pandemic lessons to be learnt

Published in The Hindu on January 25, 2010

2009 H1N1 photo - Photo Credit - C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish, CDC
2009 H1N1. – Photo: C.S. Goldsmith and A. Balish, CDC

 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is planning to review its response to H1N1 once the pandemic is over. Several European countries have accused it of exaggeration. With the world nervously watching the spread of the deadly H5N1 bird flu, which only sporadically infects humans but kills over half of those unlucky enough to catch it, the WHO significantly revised its influenza pandemic plan in 2005. Under the revised criteria, once a flu virus crossed over from animals and showed itself capable of efficient human-to-human transmission, the extent of its spread would determine the declaration of a pandemic. Catching everyone by surprise, it was a H1N1 flu virus that originated in pigs and carried a novel combination of genes that set off the current pandemic. Even after the new swine-origin virus began causing widespread outbreaks, the WHO was averse to using severity as a factor in judging the pandemic. It argued that assessing severity was complex; besides, it could vary among countries (and even within countries) and might change over time. But with the pandemic turning to be less of a killer than some virulent seasonal flu strains, people and governments are asking what the fuss was all about. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has now called for an investigation into the role of pharmaceutical companies in overplaying the dangers of H1N1.

Developed countries have spent billions to fight the pandemic and the healthcare systems of many developing countries have been severely strained. From about 29,000 people from 74 countries infected by the virus leading to 144 deaths at the time the world health body declared it a pandemic in June last year, H1N1, as on December 30, had spread to more than 200 countries. But the number of laboratory-confirmed deaths has not gone beyond 12,000. Though the actual number of infected people and deaths may be higher as the virus is widespread in the community, the fatality rate is nowhere alarming. Some developed countries have already reduced the vaccine orders or have been trying to resell their stockpiles. The WHO recently stated that the influenza has passed its peak in many countries in the northern hemisphere, including the U.S. However, the infection continues to rise in some parts of Europe, and in Asia, where the infection started later. In short, there is no warrant for either alarm or complacency.

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