Vietnam wants WHO response to lobbying accusations

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Vietnam has asked the WHO for a response to allegations it had exaggerated the swine flu pandemic under pressure from pharmaceutical lobbies.

Pharmaceutical companies have made huge profits from vaccine contracts in the wake of the crisis that critics say was overblown for that purpose.

“At the moment the Vietnam Ministry of Health is consulting various sources and waiting for official opinions from the WHO,” deputy minister Trinh Quan Huan said in an interview with local online newspaper VietNamNet.

In a letter sent to the United Nations agency on Tuesday, the ministry suggested the WHO make recommendations for flu prevention measures in Vietnam and other countries.

The 1.2 million doses of influenza A (H1N1) vaccines committed by the WHO should also be sent to Vietnam soon so the country can conduct trials for safety and efficiency before putting them into use, the ministry said.

Vietnam would continue its immunization plan with WHO-sponsored vaccines, the ministry’s Department of Preventive Health and Environment head Nguyen Huy Nga told the paper.

“Although spread of the flu in Vietnam is slowing down, cold weather could strengthen it again,” Nga warned, adding that even if H1N1 flu didn’t develop into a greater outbreak, the vaccines could be used for common kinds of flu as well.

The number of H1N1 infections in Vietnam had decreased sharply over the past 3-5 weeks with several observation stations reporting no new cases, Huan told Thanh Nien.

The epidemic was weaker than expected with a death rate equal to or lower than that of the common flu â€" 0.45 percent, he said. Fifty people who tested positive for the H1N1 virus have died in Vietnam since it was first detected here last May.

Vietnam had to reconsider its plan to buy another 500,000 doses this first quarter, drawing on the experiences of some countries which had to transfer the vaccines when local supply outweighed demand, according to Huan.

Vietnam spent nearly VND1 trillion (US$54.1 million) on H1N1 flu control last year.

Confusion

Early this week Wolfgang Wodarg, head of health at the Council of Europe, claimed that pharmaceutical companies had placed their people in the WHO, influencing its decision to declare the disease a global pandemic last June, the UK-owned Daily Mail reported.

Their influence could have led the WHO to soften its definition of a pandemic, which pushed huge profits to drug and vaccines makers, Dr. Wodarg told the newspaper.

“We have had a mild flu - and a false pandemic,” he said, branding the H1N1 outbreak as “one of the greatest medical scandals of the century.”

However, in a press release issued last Friday, the WHO said it had not changed the definition of pandemic in the course of H1N1 outbreak and that it had not exaggerated the pandemic.

“WHO has consistently assessed the impact of the current influenza pandemic as moderate,” the agency said in the statement.

Dr. Jean-Marc Olive, chief representative of the WHO in Vietnam, told a press briefing on Wednesday that a document on the WHO’s website several months ago said a pandemic would include “enormous amounts of cases and deaths,” which may be the root of the confusion.

Yet, the information which “was never part of the formal definition of a pandemic,” was removed later, Olive said.

He said they had to take action and make recommendations at the beginning of the pandemic, whether it was severe or mild.

When asked about the WHO’s investigation into claims that some members of its Strategic Advisory Group of Experts enjoyed financial support or were given a salary from pharmaceutical companies, Olive refused to comment, saying that he was supposed to answer questions related to Vietnam only.

In the meantime, the WHO affirmed in its latest press release that it had systems in place to prevent potential conflicts of interest by experts in its advisory groups in response to Dr. Wodarg’s accusations, which prompted the Council of Europe to launch an investigation.

Any allegations of conflict of interests by WHO experts would be investigated immediately, the agency stressed.

It would review the way the WHO dealt with the outbreak of the H1N1 flu once the pandemic had subsided as well, Reuters quoted WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib as saying on Tuesday.

Source: Thanh Nien, Agencies

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