Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Transparency on Pandemics

How bad would it be for officials to be more open about how they make decisions on “preparedness”?  Should the public know more about how so-called experts forecast coming danger?  What’s the influence of media reports, like the coverage of last year’s flu outbreak which suggested, from day one, that it would resemble the 1918 flu?  How influential are the pharmaceutical companies and other vaccine makers?

At H5N1 yesterday, Crof picked up the U.K. government’s announcement that it would sponsor an independent review of decision making in response to H1N1 swine flu last year.  The U.K.’s Minister of Health, Liam Donaldson, told WebMD that it is

vital that we learn from what we have seen in this pandemic, for the sake of those who find themselves tackling … the next. It is likely to be worse.

Anybody who claims to know what the next pandemic will be like is asserting a special ability to read mysterious auguries that nobody else can see.  So it’s all the more shocking that Donaldson goes on to obfuscate his own failure to ask critical questions by claiming to have been using expert predictions:

Would it have been acceptable to hide and conceal statistical projections provided by statistical modellers of international standing, even though releasing them publicly caused alarm in some quarters?

As if the flak he had taken last July were for a perfectly rational assertion, not an apocalyptic forecast — when he said that there could be 65,000 deaths from flu in Britain.  Donaldson later dropped the forecast to 19,000 deaths.  (The actual number was less than 400 during 2009, 457 to date.)

And as if Donaldson had not made the same off-base prediction back in October 2005, when he said that there would be an avian flu outbreak in the U.K. with 50,000 deaths.  That was Donaldson’s excuse to use public money to purchase two and a half million doses of antivirals for stockpiling.

As if, that is, the problem were that people are just benightedly opposed to science — not genuinely concerned about malfeasance.

To its credit, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe continues its investigation of decision making around the H1N1 outbreak response, holding a second public hearing on Monday.  Briefs of experts’ statements at the first hearing, back in January, are available here, and links to full statements and video are at the PACE site here.

Some of my friends and colleagues in public health wonder if this kind of questioning comes from misunderstanding the seriousness of flu and others are fearful that it will diminish the authority of public-health physicians.  A few, but too few, back the redoubtable Tom Jefferson, who has been questioning the reliance on flu vaccine for a long time.  Shouldn’t scientists — especially scientists — question authority?

Officials’ legitimacy ought to be diminished if they’re not serving the public.  Particularly when their decisions mean that private companies benefit from taxpayers’ monies.  Clearly, the transfer of funds is what happened with the H1N1 flu response.  Was it based on sound decision making?  More transparency would be a good thing.

Now that the Council of Europe and the U.K., are investigating official responses to H1N1 flu, could we please hear from the United States?

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This entry was posted on Friday, March 26th, 2010 at 9:59 am and is filed under Disease, epidemics, Health Professions, News, Outbreaks, Physicians, public health, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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[…] my favourite flu skeptic, and I should have picked up his March 26 post much sooner than this: Transparency on Pandemics. Excerpt: How bad would it be for officials to be more open about how they make decisions on […]

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