Sunday, May 22, 2005

Activists dismiss bird flu fears

The distrust of WHO from its lack of transparency and obeisance to member states (some of dubious virtue) has borne the expected bitter fruit. Yesterday Satya Sivaraman of the People's Health Movement dismissed fears of an influenza pandemic, charging it was the product of a climate of "panic."
Sivaraman is attending the World Health Assembly, meeting in Geneva until May 25, where one of the items on the agenda is a draft revision of the WHO International Health Regulations aimed at heightening security against the international spread of disease, essentially in response to the SARS and bird flu outbreaks.

While he believes that revising the regulations is a good idea, he fears that the reaction to these diseases is closely linked to ”American paranoia about biological terrorism.”

Since the early 1990s, he said, the United States has been trying to convince the world that biological terrorism is possible, but ”nobody was listening to them.”

But then, with the outbreak of anthrax, followed by SARS and the chicken flu, they have finally succeeded in ”creating this mood.”

One of the implications of this situation is a restriction of the movement of people, he said. ”Talk with any doctor in Europe, and they will tell you that tuberculosis is back in Europe because of migrants, that HIV is spreading because of migrants. This is all linked between migrants and diseases.”
I understand these views. The US government has cynically manipulated fears of "global terrorism" and used them for political purposes, while European governments have raised disease fears to cope with domestic backlash over foreign workers and immigrants.

However, this time the situation is genuinely dangerous. Pandemic influenza, especially with a virus with the characteristics of H5N1, is a genuine threat, no more so than to the world's poorest countries. They will not be the beneficiaries of any last minute vaccines or anti-viral stockpiles and most have no medical care system to speak of. They will suffer grievously, and as usual, disproprotionately.

In actual fact, the US and many other nations have done relatively little with regard to preparing their own populations for a pandemic, nor has it become part of an anti-immigrant or xenophobic campaign, maybe because it doesn't particularly lend itself to such uses. So this is not a concern instigated by WHO and the US but one that arose in spite of their timidity.

So while The People's Health Movement's suspicions are understandable, in the end I am not sympathetic. There comes a time when critical thinking needs to be exercised in place of off-the-shelf reactions. This is the time.