Health experts hope WHO assembly will air flu grievances

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Health experts are hoping that the World Health Organisation's member states will air their grievances over the costly handling of the swine flu pandemic at the agency's annual assembly starting on Monday.

The issue is on the agenda of the opening days of the meeting, which is due to bring together 60 health ministers as well as officials and specialists over five days.

"I hope that states will demand an explanation because there was considerable waste," said Marc Gentilini, a member of the French academy of medicine.

Gentilini backed the decision to alert the world to the new swine flu outbreak in Mexico and the United States more than a year ago but said mistakes had been made in judging the severity of the illness.

A(H1N1) influenza has left 18,030 people dead since the virus was uncovered, prompting the UN health agency to declare a pandemic in June 2009 as swine flu swiftly spread worldwide.

It has now affected more than 204 countries and territories, according to the WHO.

But initial fears about the severity of swine flu, which sparked a rush for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of specially developed vaccines, have largely petered out.

Many countries have run down their emergency pandemic response measures and have been trying to offload large stocks of unused A(H1N1) vaccine.

An independent committee of experts set up by the WHO to probe the international response to the swine flu pandemic is due to issue its conclusions by the beginning of next year.

Meanwhile the emergency committee of scientists advising the WHO on the flu response has so far declined to wind down the global pandemic alert.

Marie-Christine Blandin, a French senator and rapporteur of a French parliamentary committee on the issue, underlined that the WHO's member states had approved the International Health Regulations that broadly determined the agency's response last year.

Other issues also relate to doubts about what some groups regard as the excessive leverage of pharmaceutical companies.

"The newest vaccines continue to be produced by only a handful of multinational pharmaceutical companies whose oligopoly status allows them to charge high prices," said Rohit Malpani, senior policy advisor at Oxfam.

Topics on the assembly's agenda include a long running dispute about the intellectual property rights on flu virus samples and access to vaccines the pharmaceutical industry develops from them, as well as the availability of drugs for neglected diseases.

Both topics mainly affect developing nations.

Claire Anne-Siegrist, a professor at the University hospital of Geneva, said those issues should lead to a "more constructive debate."

"Everybody should be asking what could be done better," she added.

© 2010 AFP

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