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Celebrating The Pandemic That Fizzled

In late March 2009, a 20-year-old employee in our Scarsdale, N.Y., office came down with the flu just after she returned from a Mexican vacation. In short order nearly everyone in the office got sick, with the conspicuous exceptions of my wife Linda and me.

We are the only over-50 employees in an office where everyone else is 20- or 30-something. We did not know it right away, and I cannot prove it because none of our people were tested, but I believe our office outbreak was among the earliest U.S. cases in the H1N1 influenza, or “swine flu,” epidemic.

Everyone in our group quickly recovered. We were lucky. Nobody happened to be pregnant or suffering from a separate, complicating illness, which would have increased the mortality risk from a disease that killed 18,114 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). But even our healthy young adults were in danger. This unusual flu sometimes kills by provoking an exceptionally strong immune response in vigorous young people. As I said, we were lucky.

Now the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is preparing for a debate over a report that asserts the WHO exaggerated the H1N1 threat, in part due to the influence of drug companies that were looking to drum up business.

The report by the Council’s Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee claimed the WHO's alleged overreaction led to the “distortion of priorities of public health services across Europe, waste of large sums of public money, and also unjustified scares and fears about health risks faced by the European public at large.” A second report, published the same day, criticized guidelines developed by the WHO in 2004. That report was the result of a joint investigation by the medical journal BMJ and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Input from experts linked to companies that manufacture antiviral drugs created a conflict of interest, the reports suggested, leading authorities to overstate the threat of a deadly global pandemic (and to prematurely declare that H1N1 was indeed a pandemic), thereby increasing demand for the drugs. "We are left wondering whether major public health organizations are able to effectively manage the conflicts of interest that are inherent in medical science,” the BMJ report stated.

The WHO continues to maintain that H1N1 did reach pandemic levels. "The idea that we declared a pandemic when there wasn't a pandemic is both historically inaccurate and downright irresponsible," WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told The Washington Post. “To insinuate that this was not a pandemic is very disrespectful to the people who died from it.” According to WHO data, H1N1 has affected at least 214 countries and territories since the virus was first identified in Mexico and the United States in April 2009.

WHO chief Margaret Chan recently decided not to lift the pandemic label. Although cases are currently on the decline, the WHO will wait until July, when more data about the past flu season will be available, to reconsider whether to officially declare the pandemic over.

Compared to other flu pandemics — such as the 1918 outbreak, which is believed to have killed between 20 and 40 million people — the H1N1 pandemic was mild. But it is wrong to blame health organizations for overreacting. No one knew at the time how aggressive the H1N1 strain would be, or whether it would mutate into something even more deadly. Pretty much the only thing we did know was that this strain targeted an unusual population, afflicting far more healthy young adults than do ordinary, seasonal flu varieties, which tend to be most severe among the elderly.

Yes, some nations may have over-prepared. That is what you do when the most vital sector of your population is at risk. Genuine health concerns, not the interests of pharmaceutical companies, prompted the WHO to issue stringent guidelines and prompted national governments to follow those recommendations.

If the first flu pandemic in 40 years turned out to be a relative bust, that is cause for celebration, not for assigning blame. I say hallelujah.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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