H1N1 Flu Focus Drawing WHA Attention Away from More Deadly Diseases, Advocates Say
International health advocates on Wednesday said that the focus on H1N1 (swine) flu was pulling much needed attention away from diseases and other serious health concerns that kill far more people each year, Reuters reports.
The comments came after this week's annual World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting bumped discussions about Chagas disease, hepatitis and non-communicable disease off the agenda until next year and cut the meeting short to "allow officials to compare notes on pandemic readiness then return home" to deal with the spread of H1N1 (McInnis, Reuters, 5/20). After originally being dropped, the topics of drug-resistance tuberculosis and polio were placed back onto the WHA agenda at the insistence of African officials (Klapper/Jordans, AP/Washington Post, 5/20) and China (Reuters, 5/20). According to the AP/Washington Post, WHO staff have been moved from other health programs to work on swine flu.
"Malaria, drug-resistant TB they are killing people every day," said Sam Zaramba, Uganda's chief medical officer. "If all the emphasis that has been put on swine flu had been put on malaria and TB, we would have made a bigger impact on health" (AP/Washington Post, 5/20).
In comparison to Chagas disease which afflicts 14 million people, killing 15,000 each year or viral hepatitis "which afflicts 500 million people and kills one person every 30 seconds," the H1N1 virus has infected over 10,000 people and killed 80.
"It is right that the WHO is taking H1N1 so seriously and is making preparations. But to allow a single disease to overshadow everything else is, I think, very unfortunate," said Charles Gore, president of the World Hepatitis Alliance.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan has defended the decision to hold a shortened WHA meeting. "Health officials are right now too important to be away from their home countries for more than a few days," she said, adding, "At the same time, we cannot, we dare not, let concerns about a pandemic overshadow or interrupt other vital health programs" (Reuters, 5/20).
Countries Respond to Rising Numbers of Confirmed Cases of H1N1, Flu-Related Deaths
The WHO on Thursday reported that 41 countries have confirmed 11,034 cases of H1N1 infection, including 85 deaths. A full list of country cases and deaths is available here (WHO Influenza A(H1N1) - update 35, 5/21).
The H1N1 virus continued to spread throughout Asia on Thursday, with newly confirmed cases in the capital cities of Tokyo and Beijing. While the swine flu has caused anxiety in "a region that has battled the H5N1 bird flu virus and SARS over the past 10 years," there have been no reports of deaths caused by the H1N1 virus (Reynolds/Nishikawa, Reuters, 5/21).
In an effort to keep swine flu out of Egypt, Health Minister Hatem el-Gabali on Wednesday announced Egyptians making the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in December run the risk of being quarantined upon their return, the AP/Google.com reports. The hajj typically draws about 3 million people each year, including 500,000 Egyptians (El Deeb, AP/Google.com, 5/20).
IRIN reports the WHO has given 300,000 doses of the antiviral Tamiflu to Afghanistan to help the country prepare for a possible H1N1 flu outbreak, even though there have been no confirmed cases of swine flu there (IRIN, 5/20).
Chan on Thursday reaffirmed that she would raise the WHO's pandemic alert to Phase 6 indicating an H1N1 flu pandemic was underway if the evidence shows the H1N1 flu "is a global phenomenon," despite the concerns of several governments in flu-affected regions that doing so would confuse the public, Reuters reports. "When I see more signals coming from the virus itself or the spread of the disease, including severity, I would not shy away from making a very difficult decision. I would not compromise the world people's health," Chan said (MacInnis, Reuters, 5/21).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.