The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Tuesday announced the end of the swine flu pandemic, more than a year after the disease began spreading around the world, sparking panic and killing thousands.
“The world is no longer in phase six of the pandemic alert. We are now moving into the post-pandemic period,” WHO director general Margaret Chan said in a telephone news conference.
“The new H1N1 virus has largely run its course,” she added.
The top phase of the WHO’s six-tier pandemic alert scale corresponds to a pandemic, or global spread of a disease.
The step followed advice given earlier on Tuesday by the WHO’s advisory emergency committee of 15 external scientists headed by Australian infectious diseases expert John Mackenzie.
A(H1N1) influenza has killed more than 18 449 people and affected 214 countries and territories since it was uncovered in Mexico and the United States in April 2009, according to WHO data.
The new virus spread swiftly worldwide despite emergency containment measures including a week-long shutdown in Mexico, prompting the UN health agency to scale up its alerts and declare a pandemic on June 11 2009.
Fears about the severity of swine flu and a harmful mutation sparked a rush for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of specially developed vaccines and a flurry of public health precautions.
However, those concerns fizzled out in the latter stages of 2009 to be replaced by recriminations in Western nations about the cost of unused vaccines and what some European critics regarded as an unjustified scare.
After petering out in Europe and the United States before their winter flu season was over, in recent months swine flu has affected parts of South Asia and “limited areas” of tropical South and Central America, as well as Africa for their second season.
Last Friday, the WHO’s weekly pandemic assessment noted that transmission “remains most active in parts of South Asia and in limited areas of tropical South and Central America”.
Behaving like seasonal flu
But unlike 2009, when A(H1N1) ousted most other types of flu viruses around the world, known seasonal viruses now are prevalent and even dominant in countries such as South Africa.
Chan acknowledged that the A(H1N1) virus was no longer “crowding out” other flu viruses and was behaving like seasonal flu, while populations appeared to have built up a degree of immunity to the new virus thanks to exposure last year or vaccination.
Under the WHO’s guidelines, that meets the set criteria under international pandemic guidelines for the “post-pandemic” phase, although surveillance should be maintained.
“Continued vigilance is extremely important,” Chan cautioned, adding that “good luck” had also played its part in the virus’s decline.
The monthly growth in the global pandemic toll has been below 200 for the past three months, compared with 2 000 to 4 000 at the beginning of the year.
The Netherlands said two weeks ago that it was destroying more than 17-million unused doses of specially developed swine flu vaccine that were nearing their expiry date and that it could not resell.
The WHO has responded to criticism of the international alert by setting up a committee of external experts to review the handling of the pandemic.
The review panel is to report its findings by the beginning of next year.
Vaccines for regular seasonal influenza viruses now incorporate protection against A(H1N1) swine flu and the WHO insists on the merits of flu jabs. — AFP