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WHO Committee Investigates H1N1 Flu Response

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Lisa Schlein

The World Health Organization has wrapped up a three-day review process of the world's response to the H1N1 influenza pandemic.  A committee of 29 independent experts has set the agenda for a forthcoming year-long probe into how well the first flu pandemic of the 21st century has been managed.  

The World Health Organization, or WHO, has been criticized for the manner in which it has handled the H1N1 influenza pandemic.  

Some critics accuse the U.N. health agency of having exaggerated the severity and dangers of the disease.  Others charge the WHO has been influenced by major pharmaceutical companies, which has resulted in the over-production of flu vaccine.

The chairman of the investigative panel is Harvey Fineberg, the president of the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Fineberg says the committee is mindful of the WHO's critics.

"We want to give a hearing to those," said Harvey Fineberg. "We want to take account of those.  We want to consider those.  And, indeed, we would like to understand what their criticisms are and the basis for them.  We want to be able to take that into account.  We want to face up to those.  We are not here to either defend or to prosecute the WHO.  That is not our job.  We are here to find out as best we can and in as truthful a way as we can what are the lessons that we can learn."

Dr. Fineberg says members of the committee do not represent any organization or country, and that each member has been vetted to ensure they have no financial stake in the outcome of the inquiry.

He says the WHO director-general has given the committee free access to the organization's staff and documents.  He says the investigation will be completely transparent.

He says the committee has organized its work into five areas.  

"The first being the preparedness phase, the pre-pandemic issues," he said. "The second being, what we call in shorthand, the alert phase.  That is everything that leads up through the epidemiology, analysis and decision making to recognition of what is happening.  And, the third, the response phase.  How do you respond to the epidemic in its various stages?  A fourth group really dealt with a cutting issue, which is communication"  

Dr. Fineberg says the fifth area of exploration deals with how well the WHO is administering the International Health Regulations.  The regulations guide the world's handling of global public health emergencies, including the H1N1 flu pandemic and non-pandemic issues.

The committee plans to meet again at the end of June and the end of September to discuss and analyze the results of their findings.   

An interim report is expected to be presented in May at this year's World Health Assembly and the final report is expected to be presented at the Assembly next year.

The originally published version of this story incorrectly named Dr. Harvey Fineberg as the president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Fineberg is the president of the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. VOA regrets the error.

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