Chapter 6: The Sources of Failure
In 1996 the first case of avian flu (H5N1) was identified in farmed geese in China. In 1997 the first reported case of human infection was reported in Hong Kong and in 2003 the first human fatality, also in Hong Kong. In May 2004 the World Health Organization (WHO) warned about ‘high mortality’ rates and ‘pandemic potential’. In July 2004 it announced that avian flu risked becoming a global pandemic.1 As it turned out, by the end of 2009 about 280 people had died. While this was tragic it was not mortality on the scale originally warned against. The WHO has been criticised for sounding a false alarm and scaremongering. In contrast to the alarm sounded in 2004, the WHO warning in April 2009 about the risks of a global pandemic from ‘swine’ flu (H1N1) was handled in a more cautious and considered way. The WHO had learnt from the earlier episode and in response to criticism had revised the scale of alerts it went through before declaring a pandemic in June 2009.2 Even so it has been criticised again because the scale took account of the international spread of the virus but not the severity of the illness or its mortality (death) rate. In addition, in the case of H1N1 the morbidity (infection) rate may also have been overestimated.3 By the end of 2009 the WHO estimates about 13,000 people had died worldwide. In its defence, the WHO can fall back on the ‘precautionary principle’ – better safe than...
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