WHO set to declare end of flu pandemic

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) is expected to downgrade the H1N1 influenza pandemic when its emergency committee meets later this month, WHO Regional Director for Europe Zsuzsanna Jakab told EURACTIV in an interview.

The move would spell the end of the global pandemic, which began just over a year ago when the WHO raised the alert level to phase six on its six-point scale.

New cases of the virus have fallen dramatically in Europe, although it has continued to spread slowly in the southern hemisphere. Following criticism that officials overreacted to the outbreak, the WHO is reviewing its guidelines on what constitutes a pandemic.

This, says Jakab, is likely to result in a more sophisticated system which takes account of the severity of the illness rather than focusing solely on its geographical spread.

"The pandemic continues. However, the emergency committee which advises [WHO Director-General] Margaret Chan will meet at the end of the month to decide whether to scale it back to a post-pandemic phase. We all expect this to happen sooner rather than later, probably by the end of July," Jakab said.

She defended the WHO's handling of the pandemic, saying the Organisation – and the EU institutions – had responded well to the crisis. Jakab headed up the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control during the peak of the outbreak, before taking on her new role at the WHO.

The Council of Europe has held an investigation into the pandemic response and a number of MEPs have called for an official EU probe into the quality of advice given to governments (EURACTIV 06/05/10).

More transparency on expert advice

Some EU member states have been left with millions of doses of H1N1 vaccine but Jakab said medicines had to be ordered before the severity of the pandemic was clear (EURACTIV 05/01/10).

"It is a difficult issue, because to boost vaccine production in the pharmaceutical industry it was important that some member states made this pre-pandemic purchase agreement to show industry that a market for the vaccines exists. Without this, vaccine production would not have started," she said.

Jakab also defended the independence of expert advice on which crucial decisions were taken.

The WHO is now reviewing its practice of protecting the anonymity of its scientific experts until they finish their work.

"Now that it has created so many problems, we must reconsider whether it is still the right approach. We have the same policy as the EU on issues of conflict of interest and every expert must declare their interests. These declarations will now be made far more public as part of new procedures put in place," she said.

The WHO's new Europe director also revealed that the Organisation will seek to pass on the secretariat of the International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT).

The initiative, run in cooperation with Interpol, has helped coordinate seizures of falsified medicines. This has been a source of controversy, with NGOs accusing the WHO of taking part in intellectual property enforcement rather than focusing on its public health mandate.

Ministers urged to protect health spending

Jakab addressed health ministers in Brussels this week (6 July) on the current status of the virus and outlined her priorities for her term. These include chronic diseases, smoking, alcohol, obesity and social determinants of health.

She urged governments not to cut back on preventative health initiatives and immunisation programmes as part of austerity measures as the long-term health impact will come at a high cost.

To read a full version of this interview, please click here.

 

In June 2009, the World Health Organisation (WHO) raised its flu pandemic alert level to phase six, marking the first full-scale global pandemic in 41 years. European governments put forward national response plans and prepared for an anticipated surge in cases as winter approached. 

Officials predicted that 30% of Europeans would be infected with the H1N1 virus. Most people infected with the virus - which is sometimes referred to as swine flu or Mexican flu - make a full recovery, but deaths have been recorded on all continents. 

The European Medicines Agency (EMEA) introduced a system to fast-track approval for new swine flu vaccines. Initially, two doses of each vaccine were thought to be necessary, but it became clear during the autumn that a single dose would be sufficient. This, along with a lukewarm public response to vaccination programmes, left governments with large stocks of excess flu vaccines, which they are now trying to sell (EURACTIV 05/01/10).

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