As the H1N1 virus rears its head again with the approach of the Northern winter it is a timely moment for the Asturias prizes committee to honour the World Health Organisation.
It has been on the frontline as the pandemic has spread fear and panic, but not, as yet, a health catastrophe. Current director Margaret Chan must take some of the credit, but she has also been the target of criticisms for her crisis management. She accepted the prize on behalf of the WHO, and Euronews caught up with her in Oviedio. EN: “You’re here in Oviedo to collect the Prince of Asturias award for International Co-Operation . Can you tell me what are the greatest achievements of the WHO so far?” MC: “You travel around the world, don’t you?” EN: “I do.” MC: “If for example a doctor gives you a prescription you will be able to get the same kind of medicine needed from Spain, from another country, in Africa, in Asia. This is because the WHO with the experts develops a standard, you know, a name for all these compounds so we want to make sure that you know, there is harmonisation and normalisation. What’s important the way forward I see that there are some what we call “lifestyle” diseases are going to be causing a large burden to every country. The notion of prevention is extremely important. We need to move upstream all the way to the earliest point with different ministries in different governments who must work together.” EN: “When a health threat appears WHO’s recommendations are only recommendations, then it’s up to governments to implement them or not. What’s your stance on that? Should WHO’s recommendations be binding?” MC: “You raise an extremely important question. There are certain things that need to be more binding, for example the international health regulations, and that’s why we are beginning to see the emergence of this new H1N1 virus in April of this year. Mexico was the first country that came out and made the announcement, because this is part of the obligation on the country to share information in a timely manner. Now, I have to say 6 months down the road all the countries in the WHO have honoured their commitment , so this is an example to illustrate that in some work we can have more binding reccommendations, or even what we call obligations. Others, you know, we respect their national authority to make their own decision.” EN: “How deadly has the H1N1 virus been so far?” MC: “Now so far if you look at the number of deaths caused by this virus it’s not a huge number, but we should not only measure the impact of the virus by the number of deaths.” EN: “Is that why we decided to change the definition of the pandemic in May? It was decided that the death rate should not be the determining factor anymore. Why?” MC: “The definition of a pandemic is the occurrance of a new influenza virus, and that this virus has the ability to move around the world. So the severity dimension is an extremely important dimension but it is not one such criteria that will determine whether we make the announcement. We need to make the announcement when we see a new virus, having assessed its capabilty to spread around the world.” EN: “I believe a pandemic level 5 or 6 is required in order to give the go-ahead to pharmaceutical companies to produce the vaccine. The alert was raised to its maximum in June just after the definition of the pandemic was relaxed. That’s when your moral integrity was challenged by your detractors publicly. They accused you of playing the game of the pharmaceutical industries. What is your answer to that?” MC: “Of course I listen to different people but when making the recommendation the WHO maintains its independence. We will not be influenced by any sector. This is the first pandemic in human history that we can detect before it causes havoc.” EN: “Would you still reccommend governments stockpile vaccines and Tamiflu?” MC: “Now governments have already stockpiled some Tamiflu and some vaccines, but you are only referring to those countries that can afford to do so.” EN: “So what about the poor countries?” MC: “I don’t mind telling you many countries in this world do not have the means to buy antivirals and to buy vaccines. Isn’t this sobering? About 100 countries in this world have no access to vaccine. We need to ask this question, What kind of world are we in?” EN: “What would you tell people in the west who worry that these vaccines might not be safe enough, because they’ve been produced in an emergency?” MC: “Well, I do understand that some people have apprehension about the safety of the vaccine. So far the experience coming from different countries who have implemented a vaccination campaign is that the early signals indicate that it is behaving like a seasonal influenza vaccine, but there is a difference this time in terms of the number of people getting the vaccine – This is much much larger than a seasonal influenza vaccine, so it is not unusual to see some very rare side-effects.” EN: “How bad is the H1N1 virus compared to seasonal flu?” MC: “We are seeing that it is causing very serious disease in younger people. Now seasonal influenza causes very serious disease among the frail elderly, but this disease causes severe pneumonia and death in previously healthy young adults, in children below 2, and pregnant women, so these are our concerns.” EN: “Do you think this new virus will somehow mark a turning point in our societies, in terms of hygene habits for example?” MC: “I’ve been in public health for 30 years now, it is a sobering experience when you have a new disease: people pay attention to personal hygene, environmental hygene, and when the, you know, how should I say?… the attention dies down people go back to the same old business.” EN: “If there was one thing you’d like Euronews viewers to remember from this interview, what would it be?” MC: “You know, health is in your hands. Many of the diseases that we are struggling with, the world is struggling with, are preventable.” EN: “Margaret Chan, thank you.”