Tessa Richards on volcanic ash disrupting the conference circuit

Tessa Richards Iceland’s unpronounceable volcano has much to answer for. The  economic impact of its ash cloud has been immense and its growing. Thousands of  airline  passengers are still stranded. Quiet skies may be a treat and  politicians’ Dunkerque gestures a diversion, but lives are being disrupted, and attendance at international medical conferences decimated…..

In the long term the knock on effect of this natural disaster may spur a  welcome move to more teleconferencing. but for now the travel chaos is exerting a toll. This week’s Geneva Health Forum, meticulously planned over the past  two years, was shorn of half its speakers and most of its international participants. The lack of both unquestionably affected  the session that I was due to chair on “lessons learnt from the response to the H1N1 pandemic.”

WHO’s handling of the pandemic, including its early decision to define it as such (BMJ 2009;339:b3471 )  has been widely criticised. Formal inquiries into its responses and recommendations  are currently underway. One by the Council of Europe (BMJ 2010;340:c641) , done by WHO itself, and a third one by the French government.  Their preliminary reports are expected soon.

WHO has already admitted to “shortcomings” in its handling of the pandemic, including a failure to communicate the many uncertainties around it, and the allegations of its critics could hardly be more serious. It’s accused of  orchestrating a swine flu “scam” and being unduly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry. Sparks should have been flying.

In the event the session I listened to online from the BMJ office was lacklustre. Only two of the four original speakers had been able to get to Geneva and three short presentations elicited only half a dozen questions. None of them were searching.

The message that comes across most clearly was the one delivered by a  communications officer from the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations. Drug companies had responded admirably fast to the massive demand for vaccines, Janis Bernat said, and would continue to step up production. In response to a question about inequitable access to them she laid the blame squarely on the public health community.

No one asked her about the side effects of anti- virals, or the limited efficacy of the vaccine, and what the experience of  Poland ( who ordered none and fared no worse for it) had to teach us.

WHO’s spokesman, Dominique Legros, was also unchallenged. There was no mention  of experts’ conflicts of interests, nor of dumping surplus stocks of vaccines, the meagre discourse was around  Europe’s  “sceptical and badly informed media”  contributing  to European citizens’ lack of enthusiasm for vaccination.

But while this session of the forum may not have delivered on its potential  those that were designed from the outset to field questions live from  participants grouped in hubs based in the US, Ghana, Canada, Thailand and Iran may have.

Go to the forum’s website and see . Travel plans thwarted, I’m off  to hire a donkey to take me on a virtual journey to Santiago de Compostela.

Tessa Richards is assistant editor, BMJ.