Health official suggests easing H1N1 alert in Vietnam

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A Vietnamese senior heath official has suggested lowering Vietnam's swine flu alert level as no new outbreaks of the disease have surfaced recently.

"We should lower the alert level on influenza A (H1N1)," Deputy Minister of Health Trinh Quan Huan was quoted by the Tuoi Tre newspaper as saying on June 8. He added that no influenza A (H1N1) patient has been reported in Vietnam for more than two months.

He said that the World Health Organization (WHO) had asked countries to stay vigilant against the pandemic at a meeting in Geneva in May and that the organization had not suggested lowering the alert.

The ministry has not received official notes on the matter, Huan said. But it has listened to reports from other countries over the last several months that the WHO had blown the matter out of proportion.

He said the ministry had also "heard" that senior WHO officials had been lobbied by big pharmaceutical companies to raise the alert so they could earn more money.

"This is a big issue," Huan said.

After the Council of Europe, which is not a European Union body, on June 4 published a report about the WHO's ties with big pharmacies, foreign reports cited analysts as saying that drug-makers banked US$7-10 billion while governments rushed to stockpile swine flu drugs.

The Council of Europe report said public health guidelines set by the WHO, EU agencies and national governments led to a "waste of large sums of public money and unjustified scares and fears about the health risks faced by the European public."

It said decisions about the outbreak were poorly explained and not transparent enough, warning that public trust in the WHO recommendations might not be as strong for more severe pandemics in the future.

Paul Flynn, a member of the Council of Europe's health committee, was quoted by British The Guardian newspaper as saying on June 4 that "the tentacles of drug company influence are in all levels in the decision-making process."

Flynn said "there has been distortion of priorities of public health services all over Europe, waste of huge sums of public money and provocation of unjustified fear."

Figures from Vietnam's Health Ministry showed that the state spent nearly VND1 trillion ($52.5 million) on H1N1 prevention as of the end of December last year. Swine flu in Vietnam has infected more than 11,200 people, killing 58.

Another report from British Medical Journal and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism based on another independent investigation showed that the WHO guidance issued in 2004 was authored by three scientists who had previously received payment for other work from Roche, which makes Tamiflu, and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the manufacturer of Relenza.

Lobbyists in the lobby?

WHO General Director Dr. Margaret Chan said in a letter sent to the editors of British Medical Journal on June 8 that there had been no conflicts of interest at the WHO on the issue.

"At no time, not for one second, did commercial interests enter my decision-making," she said.

Chan said the British Medical Journal feature and editorial will leave the impression that the WHO's decision to declare a pandemic was influenced by a desire to boost the profits of the pharmaceutical industry.

"The bottom line, however, is that decisions to raise the level of pandemic alert were based on clearly defined virological and epidemiological criteria."

The general director said accusations against the WHO "are not supported by the facts."

She recalled that in June last year, she announced the start of the pandemic while emphasizing that the worldwide number of deaths was small and a dramatic increase in the number of severe infections was not expected.

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