A group of independent experts will review how the H1N1 pandemic has been handled to ensure that the next global health emergency is dealt with better, a top World Health Organisation official said on Monday.
The H1N1 influenza outbreak, which began in April last year, was marked by controversies over whether the WHO and public health authorities had exaggerated the risks of H1N1 and created unnecessary alarm by declaring it a 'pandemic'.
The WHO has also been criticised for its pandemic alert system that focuses on geographical spread of the outbreak rather than its severity, and on alleged conflicts of interests between health officials and experts and vaccine makers.
The review will examine how well the WHO and its 193 member states prepared for and responded to the swine flu outbreak, whether the risks were fully understood or exaggerated and poor countries' access to vaccines, WHO flu expert Keiji Fukuda said.
"The bottom line for doing this is to identify what do we need to do to get better," he told a briefing.
About 17,000 people have died from laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1 but the WHO says the real death toll is many times higher and it is too soon to say whether the outbreak, declared a full pandemic in June last year, is over.
Fukuda said an assessment would be made by the United Nations agency's emergency committee, but no date has been set.
Milder than previous pandemics
It remains unclear whether H1N1 has been more deadly than seasonal flu, which kills thousands of people each year, but it is clearly milder than some of the 20th century pandemics in which millions died.
The virus has subsided in North America, where it originated last year, and in Europe, but there is increased activity in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and Central and South America as the southern hemisphere enters its winter, Fukuda said.
The WHO is continuing to ship donated vaccines to poor states in a complex operation, and has now reached 25 developing countries. Drug makers such as GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi-Aventis have been producing H1N1 vaccines.
The review, starting in April, will be conducted by 29 experts, drawn by WHO regional offices from a pool of scientists and public health officials nominated by member states.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan will report their preliminary findings to the WHO's annual World Health Assembly in May, with the final report due to be ready for the 2011 World Health Assembly, Fukuda said. - (Reuters, March 2010)