GENEVA — A group of outside experts will scrutinize the World Health Organization's response to the swine flu outbreak and likely examine whether the global body could have been clearer when it declared a pandemic of what has turned out to be a relatively mild disease, the World Health Organization said Monday.
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The review starting later this month will be conducted by around 30 scientists and public health officials, and their initial findings will be presented to member states by WHO Director-General Margaret Chan in May, a senior official told reporters in Geneva.
"The assessment itself is going to address many of the questions which are being raised now," said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO's top flu official.
WHO's pandemic alert scale, or "phases," and the role that disease severity plays in the global body's assessment of an outbreak are likely to be among the "critical issues" the group will examine, he said.
Several governments urged WHO last year not to declare swine flu a pandemic, saying it could cause unnecessary alarm if the virus turned out to be harmless. The U.N. health agency went ahead anyway, arguing that the term pandemic signifies only that a new strain is circulating worldwide, but says nothing about how dangerous it is.
Fukuda insisted Monday that the choice of word was correct, but acknowledged that the term pandemic may have caused confusion among some who later accused WHO and others of overplaying the threat the virus posed.
Finding "what is the best way to convey the magnitude of risk" would likely be a key issue for the expert group to discuss, particularly with a view to improving communication during future disease outbreaks, he said. "A lot of attention will be spent on how do you do that in a way that is clear in Egypt, London or Anchorage, Alaska."
The expert group, which will include "very well-known scientists," will hold its first meeting April 12-14 and consultations will probably continue over the course of the year, Fukuda said.
A final report will be presented at the WHO's annual meeting of member states in May 2011, he said. WHO is holding a separate, internal review of its handling of the outbreak.
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