WHO rewriting history 1984-style


Richard Moore

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Corrupt WHO Attempts To Rewrite History To Confuse Swine Flu Inquiry

Peter Doshi,
graduate student
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA 02139

To the Editor:

Since the H1N1 outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) appears to be distancing itself from the idea that it ever promoted the concept of an influenza pandemic as an inevitably disastrous event. Last May, the WHO Director-General declared that highly pathogenic avian influenza “H5N1 has conditioned the public to equate an influenza pandemic with very severe disease and high mortality. Such a disease pattern is by no means inevitable during a pandemic. On the contrary, it is exceptional.” [1]

I disagree. It is public health organizations–not viruses–that have shaped the public’s understanding of pandemic influenza.

In the BMJ last September, I documented how the WHO altered its longstanding definition of “influenza pandemic” a few weeks after the emergence of H1N1 [2]. The Organization deleted the phrase “enormous numbers of deaths and illness” from the definition. By the new definition, pandemics need not be severe.

The classification of the H1N1 outbreak as a “pandemic” has been a central concern at the ongoing Council of Europe investigation into the World Health Organization’s (WHO) handling of H1N1. UK Member of Parliament Paul Flynn (rapporteur of the inquiry) stated that “A pandemic cannot be whatever the WHO declares it is.” [3]

In a “Key Messages” document prepared in response to the inquiry, the WHO writes:

“WHO did not change the definition of pandemic 
in the course of this outbreak. … Some of the confusion 
may stem from the fact that there was a document on 
WHO’s website for some months that said a pandemic 
would include “enormous amounts of cases and deaths”. 
This was removed when it was brought to our attention. 
This information was never part of the formal definition 
of a pandemic and was never part of documents sent to 
Member States for their preparedness work. We regret 
the confusion it has caused.” [4] 

However, what the WHO calls “a document” was in fact the WHO’s “Pandemic preparedness” homepage [5], and the definition including “enormous numbers of deaths and illness” remained on the WHO website not “for some months” but at least six years [2]. Indeed, numerous WHO policy documents over past years consistently described catastrophic morbidity and mortality as a fundamental characteristic of all influenza pandemics. (See box)

Now a second widely cited WHO webpage has been altered. The document was formerly titled “Ten things you need to know about pandemic influenza” [6], four of which included: “Widespread illness will occur”, “Medical supplies will be inadequate”, “Large numbers of deaths will occur”, and “Economic and social disruption will be great”. The document has been renamed: “Ten concerns if avian influenza becomes a pandemic” [7]. (Table)

By altering the title, the WHO has changed self-described must-know information about “pandemic influenza” into “concerns” about “avian influenza”. Most troubling, however, is that the contents (and datestamp) of the document remain unchanged. This raises serious ethical questions about transparency that must be addressed by all committees investigating the pandemic [3].

Peter Doshi
April 12, 2010

Acknowledgements: Tom Jefferson, for his help locating relevant policy documents.

References [see on site]


In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

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