GENEVA — The World Health Organization on Monday slammed as "irresponsible" critics who claim swine flu is a fake pandemic created for the benefit of drug companies.
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The U.N. health agency said the outbreak of a new strain of H1N1 influenza in North America last year had all the scientific characteristics of a pandemic, adding the WHO was never improperly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry that has benefited from huge government orders for vaccines and anti-viral drugs.
"The world is going through a real pandemic. The description of it as a fake is wrong and irresponsible," the WHO said in a strongly worded statement Monday.
A WHO spokesman declined to spell out who the World Health Organization was responding to in its statement, saying only that "this applies to anyone who believes it is not a real pandemic."
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog based in Strasbourg, France, recently recommended that the EU investigate WHO's swine flu pandemic declaration to see if the health agency acted under undue influence. WHO officials are due to meet Tuesday with the Council of Europe, which is not an official European Union body and has no power to act against WHO.
According to a WHO tally dated Jan. 17, more than 209 countries and territories have reported laboratory confirmed cases of swine flu, including at least 14,142 deaths. This is far fewer than would be expected to die each year from seasonal flu, but the figure is likely to exclude many unreported cases, according to WHO.
WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said the relatively low number of confirmed deaths from swine flu didn't mean the virus wasn't a pandemic.
"A pandemic has nothing to do with severity or number of deaths," he told The Associated Press. "A pandemic literally is a global spread of a disease."
He said WHO was "always very measured and sober in what we said and we always described the virus as causing overwhelmingly mild disease. "We cannot control how people react to this information," he added.
In its statement, WHO said it had put in place numerous safeguards to prevent conflicts of interest among its advisers, including requiring them to provide a signed declaration detailing any professional or financial interest that could affect their impartiality.
"WHO takes allegations of conflict of interest seriously and is confident of its decision-making independence regarding the pandemic influenza," it said.
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