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June 8th, 2010
11:49 AM ET

Did WHO overstate H1N1 threat?

By Elizabeth Landau
CNN.com Health Writer/Producer

Last week the British Medical Journal published an article accusing the World Health Organization (WHO) of conflicts of interest with regard to H1N1. The authors accused the organization of exaggerating the severity of the virus, and of taking advice from experts with ties to vaccine- and antiviral-producing pharmaceutical companies.

There has been a lack of transparency over conflicts of interests, the article stated, based on research from the British Medical Journal and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, England. It also claimed the WHO also changed the definition of a pandemic, removing the phrase "enormous numbers of deaths and illness" from the criteria.

Dr. Margaret Chan, director of the WHO, said in a statement Tuesday that WHO needs to have stricter rules regarding engaging industry, but that "At no time, not for one second, did commercial interests enter my decision-making." 

Chan said that when she announced the start of the pandemic on June 11, 2009, she highlighted that the number of deaths worldwide was small, and that there would not be an expected jump in the number of severe or fatal infections. "In every assessment of the pandemic, WHO consistently reminded the public that the overwhelming majority of patients experienced mild symptoms and made a rapid and full recovery, even without medical treatment," she said.

She also denies that the WHO changed the criteria for a pandemic because of H1N1. The current plan with its definitions came into being in February 2009, long before H1N1, she said.

Chan wants the WHO's work on H1N1 examined.  She asked for an independent review of how the WHO handled H1N1 in January.

The names of the members of the Emergency Committee that advised WHO on the pandemic will be released when the Committee finishes its work, as the WHO had intended previously, she said.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


soundoff (133 Responses)
  1. Thirdchild

    Thats why several of the shots were free to the public as well...if you really wanted to make a buck.. drug companies, charge the USA and then also the public.. Make more that way.

    June 9, 2010 at 08:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Hello605

    Serioiusly? Did the WHO overstate? No...

    Who overstates EVERYTHING!!! THE MEDIA!! For God sake you're actually writing a story about over publication of a story?

    June 9, 2010 at 08:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Mel

    Stupid H1N1 ruined my trip. I was supposed to go to Mexico and the airlines freaked out and cancelled flights. 🙁

    H1N1 was overstated. I got it, as did many other people. But it was not severe. You lie in bed for a few days, and then you get better. Despite already having got it, I still got the vaccine anyways. Why not? It's free and just in that slight chance that what I had was a different strain... it was identical to the average flu shot anyways. Each year there's a different strain so they change the flu shot, and that's what they did. It wasn't a new vaccine, just a new strain. People were freaking out about the vaccine being "new" without knowing that this is what happens every year when the virus mutates.

    It was way overblown, and I really wished I had been able to go to Mexico. 🙁

    June 9, 2010 at 08:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ryan mccormick

      STFU!!! I wish I saw you in person, I would punch you in the face!!!!!!! To all the people that died, and my 42 days in the hospital, 19 days in the Vent and my families worries....for 6 months of constant pneumonia....fu*k your stupid vacation!!!!!! I wish I had a vacation that was ruined and not a healthy 26 year old that will have problems for the rest OF MY LIFE!!!!

      I wish I could kick the crap out of you!!!!!!!! You're probably the stupid racist fu*k that no one likes too!!!!!! stupid ignorant person! if you want to know where I live? ask, and I will kick the crap out of you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! STUPID VACATION!!!!!!!! REALLY??????????

      July 22, 2010 at 20:32 | Report abuse |
  4. AnnonUSA

    What a farce...

    Fear mongering is what is routinely done today.

    Whether about terrorism, Global Warming or Illness, the prevailing information releases seem to border on the sensationalism. Who's coverage can sound the most dire. Which news outlet can scare the most people.

    This of course will backlash, when real danger exists and people do not heed advice because they are tired of being told the Wolf is coming, AGAIN.

    Now that the Government is getting into bed with health insurers and big Pharma, you can be sure you will see many more "pandemic" outbreaks, most of which will require the purchase and distribution of specific Vaccines.

    People are no longer allowed to think for themselves. Government and News Media do that for most people today.

    June 9, 2010 at 08:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Gretchen

    I hope that the fallout and criticism does not make the WHO more lax in their vigilence or make them question declaring the next pandemic. H1N1 spread FAST. It killed a good chunk of people in Mexico. Turned out it didn't kill as many every where else. What if the virus had behaved differently when it travelled? What if it got more virulent rather than less when it went into different populations with different immunities and vulnerabilities? I hope that this event caused some updating in the vacine producing machine. I'm not sure we're gonna get any more trial runs.

    June 9, 2010 at 08:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Louis A. Sousa

    My daughter died from it. The symptoms are unlike other influenza symptoms. They attacked the heart. These comments are ignorant and ill informed.

    June 9, 2010 at 08:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. antifool

    To Tina and all of the other "high and mighty" educated folk with a piece of paper that means nothing more than they had at least a D MINUS to pass their classes and get that piece of paper....

    Lets do some math. Number of infected vs. number of reported deaths. Now I confess I haven't looked at the number lately, but when I did, the survival rate was..... 98.5%. Seem like good odds to me. Yes. I'm willing to roll the dice. I did and I survived.

    Magically enough, I DO KNOW that the flu can kill people. The H1N1 was a little bit more capable in that aspect. Can't say I'm concerned. I'm more likely to die on my way to work

    June 9, 2010 at 08:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Jeff

    Wow a big surprise that we were lied to. Every day I turn on the damn news these days there is something or someone who is trying to scare the hell out of us. Either its a possible terrorist attack, or killer virus, or were gonna get cancer, or global warming or... the list goes on and on. Remember the hole in the Ozone layer? Oh it was gonna take us out, and as early as the 60's there were reports that the North America would be completely out of water and that all the lakes would be gone or so polluted they couldnt be used. Its all a bunch of crap, Global warming, and terrorist attacks all have some small bit of truth to them, but I dont believe all the dooms day BS anymore, just to much of it. Have a great day, enjoy your life and live for today, tommorrow may never come.

    June 9, 2010 at 08:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Nick

    Yes, but the fear tactics worked. Everyone got a vaccine, and surprisingly, no one got sick.

    Maybe the issue was overblown, perhaps the virus "missed" the U.S. Of course, it's inconceivable that the vaccine did its job and prevented the disease.

    June 9, 2010 at 08:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. M.

    "She also denies that the WHO changed the criteria for a pandemic because of H1N1. The current plan with its definitions came into being in February 2009, long before H1N1, she said."

    Wasn't the first case of H1N1 in April 2009?

    June 9, 2010 at 09:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. subreen

    I made the right choice of NOT getting the H1N1 flu shot. I was criticize by my children's doctor for not allowing them to get the shot. I believe people who did get the virus did have strong symtoms but I believe taking the shot was more riskier.

    June 9, 2010 at 09:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. brian

    It was pushed into the limelight thanks to big media. Any with a grad degree or not could follow the flow. Spring, school in, many affected. Summer, school out, very few. Fall, School restarted, and many affected. So the common denominator is the schools. My ex works for the school, and when they were directed to "clean" everything, they were also instructed, you have x amount of hours to complete. Didn't work. Then, in Ohio here they were giving out shots (none of my family bought into this scam) that were no good due to being frozen at some stage. Schools = government. What better way to promote a "pandemic" than through the children. Come on people, wake up.

    June 9, 2010 at 09:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Chaz

    welcome to the world of government healthcare

    June 9, 2010 at 09:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Amanda

    H1N1 was overhyped, but not necessarily by WHO. The death rate was not really any worse or better than typical influenza, it just hit a different sector of the public, by and large. Instead of affecting the old and very young, it affected the apparently healthy young adult. The sector of the population LEAST likely to take precautions, and/or seek medical attention for flu-like symptoms.

    My family typically does not get ill, even with strep, flu and colds running rampant about the countryside. But we live IN the country, ON a farm. My oldest is a competitive gymnast, and brought home H1N1. But no one got seriously ill from it. Enough to stay home from gym, and my husband from work one day. Over all, not bad.

    Yes, people died. It's sad. But people die from influenza A and B as well, and it never gets the hype that H1N1 got. Influenza can mutate at anytime, and frankly, I don't believe that a vaccine made from the flu of a year ago can adequately protect from the current season. I depend on our immune systems actually doing what they are supposed to.

    June 9, 2010 at 09:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Eric

    H1N1 was not really overstated. If it -was- overstated, it was by news media (like CNN) hammering on it with story after redundant story.

    The fact is, nearly everyone got H1N1 this past fall and winter. Some people deny it – "oh, I felt weak and had a lot of congestion, but it was just a cold!" But when six other people you share an office with had H1N1, and no other cold or flu is going around, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know it was H1N1.

    The fortunate part is that H1N1 was much milder than normal influenza. That's how people could get through it without even acknowledging it was a flu. That's also how people kept going to work and school with the flu and spreading it further.

    Due to the sheer volume, there was severe cases. Deaths, hospitalization, and people for whom H1N1 was worse than your average flu. Even if it was only 1% of H1N1 "victims" who had a severe reaction, 1% of 95% of the population is still a heck of a lot of people.

    June 9, 2010 at 09:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. ObvUsername

    There's a definition for pandemic, and WHO called it right. Just because people think it means something shouldn't change anything – except maybe education. Frankly, I believe the extra precautions everyone took is the reason it wasn't a much worse situation. That's kind of how preventative medicine works.

    I think the big probably will be the next time there's a serious outbreak and no one takes it seriously, thinking "hey, H1N1 wasn't that bad...why worry?" Not realizing that the worrying may have saved their lives.

    June 9, 2010 at 09:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Quentin

    I rather distant family member died from H1N1. So it is out there and like all influenza, can kill.

    I have a strong sense that H1N1, which was the strain that caused the 1918 pandemic..."the big one" if you will...was used here to practice for a potential resurgence of a real for sure killer pandemic. I think there was a bit of an exercise feel to it all.

    Of course big Pharma chashed in...that is their nature.

    June 9, 2010 at 09:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. TruthMan

    The problem is, once they call something a pandemic, they are allowed to institute special powers like martial law. H1N1 acheived that status at level 6. How come CNN doesn't report on the Bilderberg conference? When else to do conferences where the world's most powerful get together to set policy get ignored by mainstream media? Interesting....

    June 9, 2010 at 09:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. gasp

    I think the media hyped it more than anyone. Now that we have the internet, word travels fast. I think it's good to be forewarned but in this case, most of the hype came before anyone could get vaccinated. Remember how there were shortages and people freaking out because they couldn't get vaccinated?? I think this virus went through our school district right about the time my son had what might have been H1N1 (he was down for 5-7 days but did not get too sick). This all happened weeks before the vaccine was available. I think the virus had run much of its course through communities before the vaccine was accessible.

    Anything these days becomes a huge drama because word spreads faster than the speed of light. It doesn't take much to have things get over-hyped. Awareness is key and I don't have a problem with that. I just don't like to see the media causing panic, especially when there isn't much we can do about it (like get the vaccine).

    June 9, 2010 at 09:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. shell

    Did it ever occur to anyone that the amount of education that was provided, as well as targeted vaccination, may have led to this not being as big of a deal as it could have been? This could deserve commendation for a job done above and beyond, not condemnation. We may never know the impact this could have had without the response that was implemented.

    June 9, 2010 at 09:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. CedarRapids

    Was it overblown? Maybe a bit but all WHO did was warn us of the possible dangers, thats all it was, a possible warning of worse case scenarios. Remember people still died from this so don't write if off as a 'hoax' by any means.
    Its the press that like to blow things out of proportion, they are the ones that pick and choose the scariest, most dramatic parts of a news release to print. If a report was released that says there is a possibility of a global epidemic, and if so it could possibly kill millions, you can bet the press would slap it on front page with 'Doctors say millions could die from H1N1', which totally distorts what was actually said.

    June 9, 2010 at 09:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Steve

    People claiming that its better to be safe than sorry. This is the thinking that has you spending billions of tax payer money on uneeded vaccines. This is the reason we see commercials about spraying down our phones, door handles with dissinfectants b4 we use them. Utter trash, marketing ploys.

    Case in point: Dont think that the meaning of the word pandemic was changed by accident. That word was used because it spreads panic.

    The Gov relied on pharma info when they were deciding what to do rather than looking at numbers.

    June 9, 2010 at 09:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ryan mccormick

      complete understand your point... I am extremely republican and do not like spending my tax money. Unemployed benefit and are grateful for the money....food stamps...grateful...never been one of them, but I was grateful for my life for the tax money that saved it. I pay tons in tax and this was my first time getting anything in return... sometimes it is OKAY to spend a little to save lives.. still republican thought 😉

      July 22, 2010 at 20:36 | Report abuse |
  23. cindy

    im in a paramedic biology class right now and we have found that H1N1 is just like the flu but it obviously had worse symptoms. the virus only killed 46 people in my state and it may seem like a lot but it really isnt. lots of people worried to much about it and it caused issues that werent even needed or wanted

    June 9, 2010 at 10:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. MKR

    CDC Statistics on H1N1, April 2009 to April 2010:

    http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/estimates_2009_h1n1.htm

    Scroll down to see the charts, etc.

    June 9, 2010 at 15:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Mother

    No one would say otherwise about the H1N1 if they haven't gone through it. For those of you who say it was a "HYPE" well news flash, it isn't!! My husband and I lost our daughter on her 12th birthday!! This is not something to over look. I wish I had warnings so maybe could have saved her life, unfortunately she was the one who gave warnings to others and lost her young life because of this horrible flu!!!

    August 2, 2010 at 00:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Mr.Joestar

    Gads the darkness of the Internet breeds some truly disillusioned thinking. Yeah an organization which helped eliminate Smallpox is a pawn of Big Pharma? (For the record what have you accomplished scientifically? No lighting farts on fire does not count) What is your plan for handling an emerging Strain that the world population has no native immunity to? Pray? Animal Sacrifice? Let everyone just get it and see what happens? Please tell me where having stockpiles of antivirals is a bad idea????? Having some planned response to a potential world wide killer is better than winging it. This is not the dark ages, and if it were you would probably be dead. Thank the germ theory kids. If anything blame the press for it's fear bating. Let's all be thankful this strain proved to be relatively non-lethal and remember that influenza (not the "flu") will always be a very credible threat. There is no over hype when it comes to emerging viruses. Because they are UNKNOWN. Or maybe it is a myth created to sell Timeshares.??? Clowns

    August 10, 2010 at 17:54 | Report abuse | Reply
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