WHO poised to declare flu pandemic

The World Health Organisation (WHO) was poised on Thursday to declare that the new H1N1 virus has caused the first influenza pandemic in more than 40 years, health sources said on Thursday.

The move will trigger heightened health measures in the WHO’s 193 member states as authorities brace for the worldwide spread of the virus that has so far caused mainly mild illness.

Flu experts advising WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan, who were due to convene at 10:00GMT, were expected to recommend moving to the top phase 6 on the WHO’s six-point scale, the sources said.

That would reflect the fact that the disease was spreading geographically, but not necessarily indicate how virulent it is.

”Phase 6, if we call a phase 6, doesn’t mean anything concerning severity, it is concerning geographic spread … Pandemic means global, but it doesn’t have any connotation of severity or mildness,” WHO spokesperson Gregory Hartl said.

”In fact, what we are seeing with this virus so far is overwhelmingly to date mild disease. So we would think that this event is really a moderate event for the time being, because the numbers are high but the disease is overwhelmingly mild,” he told Reuters Television before the talks.

Widespread transmission of the virus in Victoria, Australia, signalling that it is entrenched in another region besides North America, is likely to be the trigger for moving to phase 6.

Five people have been admitted to intensive care in Australia and more than 1 000 cases confirmed following widespread testing in the state.

”We have tested 5 500 people in the last two weeks, that is more people than we test in our whole influenza season,” said Victorian state premier John Brumby.

One health source, who declined to be named, said the experts were also expected to recommend finishing production currently under way of seasonal flu vaccine for the northern hemisphere next winter.

”They might say finish seasonal vaccine and say begin pandemic vaccine as soon as it is feasible,” he said.

Drugmakers have obtained the new influenza A (H1N1) seed virus in the past two weeks, enabling them to begin the production process by growing the virus in eggs.

Company officials said on Wednesday that they were on track to have a vaccine against the new strain ready for the northern hemisphere autumn.

Seasonal flu each year kills up to half a million people, mainly elderly, and causes severe illness in millions, so a premature switch in vaccine production to cope with the new strain could put many people at risk.

The strain, which emerged in April in Mexico and the United States, has spread widely in places including Australia, Britain, Chile and Japan.

Authorities in Germany have confirmed 27 cases of H1N1 at a school in the industrial Rhineland city of Duesseldorf, the most concentrated outbreak of the virus so far in Europe’s biggest economy.

There have been 27 737 infections reported in 74 countries to date, including 141 deaths, according to the WHO’s latest tally of laboratory confirmed cases, but the real number of people with the disease is likely to run into at least hundreds of thousands, as mild cases may not have been detected.

The United Nations agency said on Tuesday that it was on the verge of declaring the first influenza pandemic since 1968, but wanted to ensure that countries were well prepared to prevent a panic over the disease, widely known as swine flu.

Chan, a former health director in Hong Kong, has consulted previously with the group of international experts before raising the alert level.

Confirmed community spread in a second region beyond North America would trigger moving to phase 6 — signifying a full-blown pandemic — from the current phase 5 on the WHO’s 6-level pandemic alert scale, which indicates one is imminent. — Reuters

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