May 17, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – The World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), opened in Geneva today with director-general Dr Margaret Chan praising the accomplishments of global partners with diseases such as smallpox and polio but noting that health officials got lucky with the pandemic H1N1 virus because it has not overwhelmed medical systems and is a good match with the vaccine.
"Schools closed, but borders remained open, and disruptions to travel and trade were far less severe than feared," she told assembly members today. The WHO also published her speech on its Web site. "Had things gone wrong in any of these areas, we would have a very different agenda before us today."
The group is slated to hear an interim report from a 29-member independent WHO panel that was set up earlier this year to review the organization's pandemic response. The report will reflect the group's first meeting, a 3-day session that was held in mid April.
One of its missions is to review how the International Health Regulations (IHR) functioned. Designed to guide response to global health threats, the IHR, passed by the WHA, took effect in 2007, and the H1N1 pandemic is the first major test of the rules.
Several elected officials, such as some members of the Council of Europe's Social Affairs Committee, have criticized the WHO's pandemic response as being an overreaction that wasted countries' resources on a vaccine that they say was pushed by pharmaceutical companies. About 200 elected officials who are members of the European Parliament have also signed a petition asking for an inquiry into the world's response to the flu pandemic.
However, during today's WHA sessions, representatives from some nations, such as France, India, and the United States, publicly defended the WHO's response, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported. French health minister Roselyne Bachelot called criticism of the WHO's response unfair, according to AFP.
"The vaccine, which was the answer to a real danger, turned into a source of risk in the collective mind," Bachelot said, according to AFP. "The effects of this smear campaign are potentially devastating."
Chan said during her speech today that she welcomes the review. "This has been the most closely watched and carefully scrutinized pandemic in history. It is normal that every decision and action, especially on the part of WHO, will likewise be closely scrutinized and critically assessed. We welcome this process," she said.
Also on the agenda this year are such topics as sharing of influenza viruses, access to vaccines, intellectual property rights, progress of the WHO's Millennium Development Goals, food safety, and eradication of variola stocks, a component of smallpox eradication.
This year's meeting is the 63rd gathering of the group, which will wrap up its week-long meeting on May 21.
May 17 text of Margaret Chan's speech
WHO World Health Assembly materials