UN seeks $1.5 billion for swine flu

By: Thomas Ramsay

LONDON (AP/TheLoop) — United Nations health officials claim in a new report they need nearly $1.5 billion to prevent the swine flu epidemic from spiraling into a global catastrophe.

But for a virus from which most people recover without ever being treated, not all experts are convinced swine flu merits such attention — and some critics even suspect the U.N. is using the pandemic as a convenient way to raise money.

On the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan was meeting Thursday with other top officials to discuss the swine flu funding appeal, which was authored by WHO and two other U.N. agencies.

Experts said the global community should closely track how the swine flu money gets spent.

“When $1.5 billion is pledged, it’s a reasonable question to ask about the details behind it,” said Orin Levine, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We should be very careful to watch where the money goes.”

WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl denied WHO was using the H1N1 swine flu virus as a pretext for fundraising and said the appeal was a necessary response to the global health emergency.

“If we don’t try to fund H1N1, we would be remiss in our public health responsibility to the world,” he said.

In the U.N. funding appeal, the agency says nearly 80 percent of the requested money would be used to buy antivirals and vaccines. The rest would go mostly to “strengthening country readiness.”

Influenza viruses like swine flu are unpredictable. Since the H1N1 virus first emerged in spring, experts have worried it might mutate into a more lethal form.

So far, those fears haven’t panned out. Experiments at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed swine flu lacks certain traits to help it easily morph into a more dangerous version.

Hartl said even if the virus doesn’t turn deadlier, the agency expects to see a spike in cases that might crush health systems in poor countries. “There are a lot of signs that we need to take this seriously,” he said.

Globally, WHO estimates more than 3,500 people have died of swine flu — far fewer than those killed by diarrhea, pneumonia, or road accidents. That leads some experts to contend that WHO’s prediction the virus could lead to “civil disruption” in poor countries may be overblown.

A sum of $1.5 billion is a lot to ask for considering swine flu is unlikely to be one of the world’s top killers, said Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

“Given that the world spends about $22 billion on all global health problems, is it really wise to spend $1.5 billion only on swine flu?”

Some experts said WHO’s funding appeal went beyond the boundaries of its mandate.

“I am concerned WHO’s communications is corrupted by the fact they push the buttons in the public’s brains that will raise the most funds,” said William Aldis, a retired senior WHO official who worked on the bird flu crisis.

“That is incompatible with what the organization should be doing: serving the public with technically correct factual information, pure and simple.”

Others accused WHO of sacrificing science for dollars.

“WHO is peddling an alarmist, unscientific agenda to raise funds,” said Philip Stevens, a director at International Policy Network, a London-based think tank. “The U.N. is operating on pure conjecture that we will face anarchy and chaos in the developing world should the virus mutate,” he said.

In countries where health systems are too weak to effectively mass distribute antivirals and vaccines, some experts questioned WHO’s spending plan, particularly since most of the money will benefit the drug industry.

“If we want to reduce the mortality that will be caused by the H1N1 pandemic, we cannot rely only on the vaccine,” said Dr. Christophe Fournier of Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Aldis warned that in countries with few resources, giving people a swine flu shot might come at the expense of a vaccine for measles or diptheria.

Some experts said the U.N.’s billion-dollar swine flu appeal could overshadow other pressing health problems.

“I would prioritize other areas like maternal and child health, where the need is urgent and huge,” Murray said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

9/11 becomes a day of service

By: Thomas Ramsay

WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP/The Loop) – This year marks the first time the anniversary of the September 11 attacks will be named as a national day of service. Donations of time and labor are being planned by thousands of Americans, including services such as beach cleanups, making care packages for soldiers, and various fundraisers for local charities.

President Obama declared 9/11 a day of service earlier this year. A dual ceremony will be led by the President outside Washington at the Pentagon, while Vice President Biden will be at the New York Ceremony.

There have been some critics, however, who fear this new service initiative will divert attention from the true meaning of the anniversary. “When I first heard about it, I was concerned,” said Debra Burlingame, a sister of the American Airlines pilot whose jet was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. “I fear, greatly fear, at some point we’ll transition to turning it into Earth Day where we go and plant trees and the remembrance part will become smaller, and smaller, and smaller.”

Criticism hasn’t stopped those who plan to participate both in service and in memorials.

  • A Boston group founded by victims’ family members planned to write letters and send care packages to soldiers overseas.
  • Sue Katz, a tour bus guide in New York City, planned a walking tour in Central Park to raise money to repair damage after hundreds of century-old trees were toppled by a recent storm.
  • Ted Tenenbaum, a Los Angeles repair shop owner plans to offer free handyman services on the special day.
  • In New York, Vice President Biden will attend a ceremony for the public reading of the names of the 9/11 victims, while New york residents are planning on four timed moments of silence–twice for when the planes struck the towers, and two more for when the towers collapsed.
  • A wreath will be laid at a memorial at the Pentagon.
  • Near Shanksville, Pa., where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed, former Secretary of State Colin Powell will deliver a keynote speech.
For ideas on service projects or to share your own ideas, visit 9/11 Day of Service and Remembrance.

Closing Schools Won’t Stop Spread of Swine Flu

By Thomas Ramsay

WASHINGTON, D.C.(The Loop/AP)–Massive school closings won’t stop the spread of the swine flu virus, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

This comes one day after a report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology saying the virus could potentially infect up to half the population.

“What we know now is that we have the virus right now traveling around the United States,” Sebelius said on NBC’s “Today” show. “What we learned last spring is that shutting a school down sort of pre-emptively doesn’t stop the virus from spreading.”

Other “plausible scenarios” presented by the report include 30,000 to 90,000 deaths, and as many as 300,000 people requiring intensive care. The report also raised concerns that hospital admissions could reach 1.8 million later this year.

Arrival of supplies of the H1N1-specific vaccine is expected in October, but many won’t reach the public until Thanksgiving season. Sebelius said people should plan ahead by getting their regular seasonal flu vaccine to bolster their immune systems.

“Seasonal flu vaccine is ready at the beginning of September,” she said. “We want the population that is most at risk to begin their seasonal flu vaccine now.” The resurgence in swine flu is expected as early as September, and may reach peak infection by mid-October.

The report also emphasized that these figures were planning scenarios to illustrate the possible effects of an H1N1 resurgence on social and medical capacities; these are not predictions.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.