The pandemic that wasn’t

Editorial, Normal


LAST June, the World Health Organisation (WHO), responding to an outbreak of the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, boosted the pandemic alert to the highest level, Phase 6, meaning that a pandemic was under way.
It was the first time in 41 years that the United Nations organisation had taken that declared step.
However, the outbreak appears to have ended less like the rogue wild boar that WHO bureaucrats predicted and more like roasted pork tenderloin with apples and sage.
In fact, WHO repeatedly violated Sherlock Holmes’ warning: “It is a capital mistake to theorise before you have all the evidence.”
And the pandemic alert was doubly strange, given that ordinary seasonal flu sweeps the world every year, is invariably far more lethal than the currently circulating low-virulence H1N1, and certainly meets WHO’s definition of a pandemic: infections over a wide geographic area and affecting a large proportion of the population.
Ironically, the appearance of the H1N1 flu during the past nine months might be thought of as a net public-health benefit, because it appears to have suppressed, or at least supplanted, the far more virulent and lethal seasonal flu strains.
During the second week of January, 3.7% of Americans tested positive for the seasonal flu, compared to 11.5% during the same week last year.
The official death toll worldwide from H1N1 is under 14,000, while seasonal flu kills about 36,000 on average in the United States and hundreds of thousands elsewhere.
Most flu and public-health experts consider WHO to have been overly alarmist.
The decision last April to raise the pandemic flu threat to the penultimate level, phase 5 (“pandemic imminent”), already raced far ahead of the accumulated data, so the phase 6 declaration in June revealed the organisation’s paradigm to be fundamentally flawed.
A warning system based solely on how widely a virus has spread, but that does not consider the nature and severity of the illness it causes, would classify as “pandemics” not only seasonal flu, but also the frequent but largely inconsequential outbreaks of virus-caused colds and gastroenteritis, for example.
(WHO has never explained why these obvious examples do not meet their criteria.)
False alarms make the “pandemic under way” designation almost meaningless and diminish its usefulness.
And that, in turn, has important consequences: as Jack Fisher, a professor of surgery at the University of California, San Diego, school of medicine, observed: “Keep crying ‘wolf,’ and WHO can expect lower than customary compliance with flu vaccine advisories next fall.”
Worse, imagine what would happen when we encounter a genuinely dangerous new pathogen, such as a strain of H5N1 avian flu (which in its current form has a mortality rate more than 100 times higher than H1N1) that is easily transmissible between humans.
The UN’s false alarms also have had more immediate negative effects.
According to Matthew Hingerty, managing director of Australia’s tourism export council, the country lost thousands of tourists because of WHO’s pandemic declaration. Egyptian public-health authorities overreacted and ordered the slaughter of all pigs in the country.
In addition to the direct economic losses, because the pigs were no longer available to consume much of the garbage produced in Cairo, the numbers of rodents rose to fearsome levels.
The publicity and resulting panic surrounding WHO’s announcement of Phase 5 and 6 alerts – especially in the absence (until December) of widely available vaccine – also brought out fraudsters peddling all sorts of ineffective and possibly dangerous protective gear and nostrums: gloves, masks, dietary supplements, shampoo, a nasal sanitiser, and a spray that supposedly coats the hands with a layer of anti-microbial “ionic silver”. – Project Syndicate


*Henry I. Miller, a physician, molecular biologist and former flu researcher, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was a US government official from 1977 to 1994