HEALTH: Voices of Alarm and Moderation at WHO Meet

GENEVA, May 18 (IPS) - World Health Organisation (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan issued a warning about the danger posed by the H1N1 flu epidemic, while health ministers from several countries recommended avoiding excesses when it came to remarks about a potential pandemic.

"This virus may have given us a grace period, but we do not know how long this grace period will last. No one can say whether this is just the calm before the storm," Chang told health ministers and other representatives of the WHO’s 193 member states at the inauguration of the 62nd session of the World Health Assembly in Geneva.

Chang’s tone contrasted with the position taken by the ministers of Brazil, the United Kingdom and Japan, who called for maintaining the current level of influenza pandemic alert, phase 5, without passing to the highest level, phase 6, which would mean a full-fledged worldwide pandemic was under way.

José Angel Córdova, the health minister of Mexico, where the first cases of the H1N1 influenza virus - popularly as swine flu - appeared in mid-April, told journalists that he backed the call issued by those three nations.

The WHO alert level is based on how fast and widely a disease is spreading. Phase 6 is characterised by sustained community level outbreaks in at least two regions.

So far, this kind of transmission has only clearly occurred in North America. Other suspected cases of sustained community level outbreaks have been ruled out, first in Britain and this week in Japan.

"I will follow your instructions carefully, particularly concerning criteria for a move to phase 6, in discharging my duties and responsibilities to member states," said Chang.

However, the WHO chief did not refrain from pointing to the potential danger posed by influenza viruses, which she described as "the ultimate moving target. Their behaviour is notoriously unpredictable. The behaviour of pandemics is as unpredictable as the viruses that cause them. No one can say how the present situation will evolve."

She added that "We have every reason to be concerned about interactions of the new H1N1 virus with other viruses that are currently circulating in humans," such as the avian flu virus, which has spread in countries of Asia and Africa since 2003, causing hundreds of deaths.

Chang’s most emphatic warning was directed to the developing world, "which has, by far, the largest pool of people at risk for severe and fatal H1N1 infections," she said.

Without ignoring the risks posed by the epidemic, representatives of non-governmental organisations said the current global economic crisis posed an even greater threat.

Amit Sengupta, a health analyst from India, told IPS that "I’m not undermining the importance of a globally coordinated response to the influenza pandemic as it really spreads."

But what civil society is saying, he added, "is that by all accounts, the global financial crisis is a much bigger threat."

"We may be entirely wrong, but the evidence that we have before us today, in terms of the possibility of the pandemic spreading and the evidence that we have today of the financial crisis actually having happened and escalating, would suggest that the response to the financial crisis should at least match if not exceed the response to the swine flu," said Sengupta.

"And that is unfortunately something that we do not see. And unlike the swine flu, and all influenza epidemics, which have a way of containing themselves over two or three years, the last global financial crisis that happened actually only contained itself by the Second World War," he noted.

During the WHO assembly’s first day of sessions, Mexico proposed the discussion of "the possibility of creating an economic contingency fund, supported by financial multilateral organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

"The fund could be used to compensate those countries that notify in a timely and responsible manner" on events of international relevance for public health, "as a way to encourage transparency and international cooperation in public health matters."

Mexico, which reported a total of 3,646 laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1 flu, including 70 deaths, estimates the losses caused by the outbreak there at around two billion dollars.

One of the first decisions reached by the assembly was to shorten the meeting to just five days, through Friday May 22. This was done "for a good reason," said Chang, who stressed that "health officials are now too important to be away from their home countries for more than a few days."

But Sengupta said the resolution was another show of alarmism.

WHO authorities have come in for criticism for supposedly exaggerating the dangers of the epidemic. (END/2009)

Gustavo Capdevila