Fri, Sep 09, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Flu research needs means testing

By Hsien Yen-yao 謝炎堯

In contrast to the heated debate on the arms-procurement package, the government, which regards the bird flu epidemic as a threat to national security, has not hesitated to allocate NT$30 billion to purchase vaccines and other preventive measures. This budget was approved without causing any controversy. No one seems to have questioned this action. This is because certain interest groups have used the statements made by the World Health Organization (WHO) and foreign experts to convince the public.

Modern evidence-based medicine carries out medical procedures based on empirical studies and evidence. The experts' personal statements are among the least convincing evidence. This is especially true since 1980, when pharmaceutical companies began to spend large amounts of money to buy off university professors and experts in different medical fields to produce false results from clinical studies and to publicly disseminate distorted information to promote products. Thus, it is important for the public to be able to discern whether the various reports are reliable.

First, we should question the story about the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, also called the Spanish influenza pandemic (H1N1), which is believed to have resulted in the death of 20 million to 50 million people around the world. The pandemic period also saw World War I, which brought the turmoil and chaos of war, plague, population reduction and other causes of mortality.

Therefore, the casualties in this particular period should not be blamed solely on the Spanish flu. Besides, the lack of medical technology, the inconvenience of transportation, the limitated access to information, the lack of household registration systems, and other constraints make one ask: How could global figures be obtained? We would like to know how the mortality figures were arrived at, how information was gathered and what statistical methods were used.

Then, we want to question the accuracy of the predictions that more than 5 million people would be infected and at least 10 thousand people would die if a potential bird flu epidemic strikes Taiwan next March. The US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate) to treat patients diagnosed with flu but without any other complications. In other words, Tamiflu has not been shown to prevent life-threatening conditions such as pneumonia. This is to say that Tamiflu cannot save the lives of people facing complications from pneumonia resulting from avian flu.

The WHO hasn't released any documents saying that Tamiflu is an effective treatment for avian flu, nor has it urged countries to purchase a sufficient amount of Tamiflu and store it for later use.

On Aug. 26, a journalist reported that Swiss drug maker Roche would donate 30 million capsules of the antiviral Tamiflu (oseltamivir) to the WHO. The donation is to help establish a first line of defense against the feared global bird flu pandemic. On Aug. 24, the WHO issued a news release, stressing that it would use this antiviral stockpile to respond quickly to an emerging global influenza pandemic, but didn't refer specifically to avian flu.

On Aug. 8, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that drug makers including Aventis Pasteur and Chiron will each produce between 8,000 and 10,000 doses of the "experimental" vaccine for human tests. In Taiwan, what we have learned from the news report is that Aventis Pasteur has successfully developed a vaccine against avian influenza, and that the US government is beginning to purchase it in quantity.

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