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JMSC’s Thomas Abraham defends the WHO

Thomas Abraham, Director of the Public Health Communication Programme and Assistant Professor at the JMSC, has struck back at sceptics attacking the World Health Organisation for the way it’s handled the H1N1 pandemic.

Accusations have included a claim that that the pandemic was “false” and that the WHO was under the influence of drug companies keen to sell medicine.

The JMSC’s Thomas Abraham worked as the Head of News in the Director’s Office at the WHO last year when he was on a sabbatical from HKU. The former editor of the South China Morning Post helped to organise emergency communications, ran a news room and briefed journalists on the H1N1 pandemic.

In an op-ed article in The New York Times, Abraham defends the WHO’s response to swine flu, saying it’s damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.

“Initially, it was criticized for being too slow to alert the world when the disease, often called swine flu, first broke out in Mexico. Now, the organization faces a diametrically opposite charge: that it was influenced by the pharmaceutical industry to create a false pandemic when none existed, so that drug companies could sell more vaccines.”

Thomas Abraham insists that this idea is ridiculous and points out that many people have died of this disease.

“This is not an innocuous disease. Take a look at the lungs of those whom it as killed: The virus has turned them into a wasteland of devastated tissue, in a way that the normal flu virus never can.”

His article highlights the medical gulf that exists between rich and poor countries: rich countries are awash with excess vaccine while poor countries can’t get their hands on it – 90% of the world’s vaccine production is concentrated in Europe and North America.

China, classed as a middle income country, is an exception; it has built up its vaccine production capacity. This is lucky as Chinese New Year approaches, with its huge movement of people travelling home to see family. As millions of workers migrate home for the festivities from cities to smaller towns and villages, the virus is given a chance to spread and mutate to a more severe form.

Abraham says the inequity of vaccine distribution is the most pressing issue to arise during this crisis. He commends the WHO for trying to distribute the vaccine as widely as possible, but acknowledges the difficulties it has faced.

“Legal and administrative hurdles, regulatory issues and logistic problems have meant that the W.H.O. has been unable to deliver vaccines to developing countries at the time they most needed them, when the disease was peaking. Even had they received vaccine supplies, many countries were ill-equipped and ill-prepared to distribute the vaccines, revealing the weaknesses in health systems across the world.”

Abraham teaches MJ’s ‘Reporting Health and Medicine’. The course covers the basic principles of health reporting and looks at the background of this virulent strain of flu. Topics covered include the spread of the disease, vaccination, and how different countries cope with the crisis.