Swine Flu Response: Alarmist or Legit?

By Frank Jordans via www.msnbc.com

GENEVA – A group of outside experts will scrutinize the World Health Organization’s response to the swine flu outbreak and likely examine whether the term pandemic was appropriate for what has turned out to be a relatively mild disease, the World Health Organization said Monday.

The review starting later this month will be conducted by around 30 scientists and public health officials, and their initial findings will be presented to member states by WHO Director-General Margaret Chan in May, a senior official told reporters in Geneva.

“The assessment itself is going to address many of the questions which are being raised now,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s top flu official.

WHO’s pandemic alert scale, or “phases,” and the role that disease severity plays in the global body’s assessment of an outbreak are likely to be among the “critical issues” the group will examine, he said.

Several governments urged WHO last year not to declare swine flu a pandemic, saying it could cause unnecessary alarm if the virus turned out to be harmless. The U.N. health agency went ahead anyway, arguing that the term pandemic signifies only that a new strain is circulating worldwide, but says nothing about how dangerous it is.

Fukuda acknowledged Monday that the choice of words may have to be reconsidered in the future, to avoid confusion and anger from people who believe WHO and others overplayed the threat the virus posed.

“If we look back to the beginning of the pandemic there was a lot of discussion about what do you call these things,” he said. “These things affect how people perceive outbreaks and pandemics so I think it’s one of those issues that we have to think about.”

The expert group, which will include “very well-known scientists,” will hold its first meeting April 12-14 and consultations will probably continue over the course of the year, Fukuda said.

A final report will be presented at the WHO’s annual meeting of member states in May 2011, he said. WHO is holding a separate, internal review of its handling of the outbreak.

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