Sunday, March 28, 2010

Did the WHO "Cry Wolf" Over Swine Flu?

The World Health Organization (WHO) is fast becoming one of the more controversial international organizations within the UN family, with a number of allegations (or, depending on your viewpoint, commendations) that it has developed a penchant for operating ultra vires, or beyond its mandate. The most striking (but by no means the only) example of this was in relation to the SARS crisis, where the WHO took certain steps to control the disease - such as the issuance of travel advisory warnings in relation to affected States - which had a significant impact on the economies of the States in question, but for which the Organization had no explicit mandate.

While the WHO actions with regard to SARS was not without its critics, it has been largely viewed as a good example of a global administrative body asserting its independence and acting rapidly to avert a global crisis. That, however, may be changing: following the prominent role played by the WHO in the swine flu scare, and the low levels of infection that have since been observed, the behaviour - and processes - of the Organization in this and other putative health crises is being revisited. (See here for the Daily Mash's inimitable take on WHO and the swine flu pandemic).

Via the Guardian, we learn that a draft report being prepared for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), by UK Labour MP Paul Flynn, is very critical of the WHO's handling of the swine flu outbreak, effectively accusing the Organization of "crying wolf" over the issue, and thus risking public confidence in future cases:

In the United Kingdom, the Department of Health initially announced that around 65,000 deaths were to be expected. In the meantime, by the start of 2010, this estimate was downgraded to only 1,000 fatalities. By January 2010, fewer than 5,000 persons had been registered as having caught the disease and about 360 deaths had been noted...

This decline in confidence could be risky in the future... When the next pandemic arises many persons may not give full credibility to recommendations put forward by WHO and other bodies. They may refuse to be vaccinated and may put their own health and lives at risk.

Interestingly, at a public hearing of PACE's Committee on Social, Health and Family Affairs, Flynn has expanded his comments to previous actions taken by the WHO:

The world has been frightened by a serious of health scares – SARS, Avian 'Flu and now Swine 'Flu. We now know, in hindsight, that the fears that were aroused do not appear to be justified. So we want to know how decisions on pandemics are taken – are they taken on the best scientific, epidemiological evidence, or are they influenced by other interests? That is the basis of this complaint. With H1N1, did the WHO, once again, frighten the world without any substantial evidence?

It is, of course, this focus on decision-making procedures that is of most interest to us from a GAL perspective; as the Guardian article notes,

Flynn's draft accuses the WHO of a lack of transparency. Some members of its advisory groups are flu experts who have also received funding, especially for research projects, from pharmaceutical companies making drugs and vaccines against flu.

This ties in to claims that are being made in other fields, most notably that of climate change and the recent travails of the IPCC (on which more soon): given that the production of scientific knowledge is now such a crucial part of global governance in a number of very high-profile fields, are we to see the traditional models of academic scientific accountability (most notably peer review) make way for more robust provisions modelled on - indeed, representing a discrete branch of - administrative law?


administrative assistant classes los angeles said...

I completely agree with you, I think the swine flu was much smaller than it was pumped up to be.

Euan MacDonald said...

Thanks for your comment - but I take no position on that issue. The fact that it has proven to be less serious than some predictions suggested does not in and of itself show that those predictions - which were of risk - were necessarily wrong.

My interest here is much more in the procedures and processes used by the WHO - and by extension by other science-based bodies - in taking governance action.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the WHO did "cry wolf" - I was working there. And shall I tell you why? It is to do with their internal-hiring system and how it is much easier to hire short-term staff for "Emergency and Humanitarian Crises" than deal with budgetary problems elsewhere in house. The other thing, which UNAIDS got caught out for a few years ago, is that when they bump up the statistics and start scaring people, they get more funds :-) The UNAIDS scandal was covered by Craig Timberg in the WaPo but no journalists have bothered asking WHY it was blown out of proportion.

Melisa Marzett said...

Interestingly, the production of scientific knowledge is now such a crucial part of global governance in a number of very high-profile fields. Writing a thesis on this topic, I also couldn't pass by ​ Simply keep it up!