After weeks of media-fueled controversy concerning the safety of domestically produced vaccines for the A(H1N1) influenza virus, the Department of Health said on Tuesday that the virus was now under control and that the second wave of the epidemic was petering out.
The announcement came the same week the WHO’s decision to declare a global pandemic was questioned by the EU’s human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe.
During hearings held by the council’s health body, WHO officials were grilled on whether they exaggerated the dangers of A(H1N1), or swine flu, under pressure from multinational pharmaceutical companies.
The officials denied the accusations and said that there had been no conflict of interest, though they said they took advice from experts, several of whom represented drug companies that stood to benefit from countries that had contracts to purchase vaccines in case of a pandemic.
The situation in Taiwan mirrored that in Europe, with local vaccine producer Adimmune Corp also coming under intense scrutiny.
The focus here, however, was not on the fact that Adimmune — chaired by a man with close relations to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) — was the sole bidder for the government’s vaccine contract, but rather on whether the domestically produced vaccine was safe following sensationalized reports of illness and deaths among people who had received the vaccine.
This alone was the reason many people in Taiwan were less than enthusiastic about getting vaccinated. The equally important news that the WHO’s decision to announce a pandemic in the first place may have been flawed — and that, as with regular influenza, the A(H1N1) virus mainly kills people with underlying chronic illnesses — appears to have escaped notice.
Many people will admit to being terrified by initial reports from Mexico last April of a new killer flu strain that was killing young people. That fear increased as cases of the “deadly virus” began to appear in countries around the globe.
Nine months on, however, and those initial fears proved unwarranted as the strain turned out to be much less potent than first thought, with a fatality rate lower than that of the seasonal flu.
Of course, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that the A(H1N1) virus could mutate into something more worrying, but surely someone at the WHO should be held responsible for causing widespread panic over what proved to be another flu strain.
If anything, the whole swine flu episode has taught us that even with the sternest prevention measures in place, a killer disease could quickly spread around the world in an age of globalization. So, despite the unjustified panic that was created this time around, there are valuable lessons for all involved.
For the WHO, it will be a case of trying to rebuild its credibility and ensuring that next time it declares a pandemic, people around the globe won’t think it is crying wolf.
For Taiwan, it is another timely lesson for this government on the value of effective communication when matters of public health are paramount.
Given this administration’s numerous failures in this regard, it is a lesson it needs to take on board rapidly.