The World Health Organisation has hit back at "irresponsible" critics who claim swine flu was a fake pandemic created for the benefit of drug companies.
The UN agency released a strongly-worded statement ahead of a meeting today in Strasbourg of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which is demanding a European Union probe into WHO's actions.
In its statement, WHO said the outbreak of a new strain of H1N1 influenza in North America last year had all the scientific characteristics of a pandemic.
And it insisted it was never improperly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry, which benefited from huge government orders for vaccines and anti-viral drugs, many of which remain unused.
According to a WHO tally dated January 17, more than 209 countries and territories have reported laboratory confirmed cases of swine flu, including at least 14,142 deaths.
This is far fewer than would be expected to die each year from seasonal flu, but the figure is likely to exclude many unreported cases, according to WHO.
The WHO statement said: "The world is going through a real pandemic. The description of it as a fake is wrong and irresponsible."
A spokesman declined to spell out who the World Health Organisation was responding to in its statement, saying only that "this applies to anyone who believes it is not a real pandemic".
But WHO officials were due to meet today with the Council of Europe, which is not an official European Union body and has no power to act against the organisation.
WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said the relatively low number of confirmed deaths from swine flu did not mean the virus was not a pandemic.
"A pandemic has nothing to do with severity or number of deaths," he said.
"A pandemic literally is a global spread of a disease."
He said WHO was "always very measured and sober in what we said and we always described the virus as causing overwhelmingly mild disease.
"We cannot control how people react to this information," he added.
In its statement, WHO said it had put in place numerous safeguards to prevent conflicts of interest among its advisers, including requiring them to provide a signed declaration detailing any professional or financial interest that could affect their impartiality.
"WHO takes allegations of conflict of interest seriously and is confident of its decision-making independence regarding the pandemic influenza," it said.Reuse content