Experts examine WHO swine flu response

Experts will investigate the World Health Organisation's response to the swine flu outbreak and probably examine whether it could have been clearer when it declared a pandemic of what turned out to be a relatively mild disease.

The independent review starting later this month will be conducted by around 30 scientists and health chiefs and their initial findings will be presented to member states by WHO director general Margaret Chan in May, Keiji Fukuda, WHO's top flu official, said in Geneva, Switzerland.

"The assessment itself is going to address many of the questions which are being raised now," Dr Fukuda said.

WHO's pandemic alert scale, or "phases" and the role that disease severity plays in the global body's assessment of an outbreak were likely to be among the "critical issues" the group would 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.

But the United Nations health agency went ahead, arguing that the term pandemic signifies only that a new strain is circulating worldwide, but says nothing about how dangerous it is.

Dr Fukuda insisted yesterday that the choice of word was correct, but acknowledged that the term pandemic may have caused confusion among some who later accused WHO and others of overplaying the threat the virus posed.

Finding "what is the best way to convey the magnitude of risk" would likely be a key issue for the expert group to discuss, particularly with a view to improving communication during future disease outbreaks, he said.

"A lot of attention will be spent on how do you do that in a way that is clear in Egypt, London or Anchorage, Alaska.

The expert group, which will include "very well-known scientists", will hold its first meeting from April 12-14 and consultations would probably continue over the course of the year, Dr 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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