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Spread of Swine Flu in Japan Could Raise WHO Alert to Highest Level
Date:5/19/2009

But U.S. health officials say the disease is no more dangerous than regular flu

TUESDAY, May 19 (HealthDay News) -- The World Health Organization may declare a full-fledged swine flu pandemic in the coming days now that the virus has swept through Japan, a former WHO infectious disease adviser said.

Since rapid human-to-human transmission is now occurring in a region outside North America, where a majority of the almost 10,000 cases worldwide have occurred, the international agency may have to raise its pandemic alert to the highest level of 6, which hasn't happened since 1968, Bloomberg News reported Monday night.

"Japan is definitely having human-to-human transmission," Hitoshi Oshitani, who advised the agency during the SARS outbreak several years ago in Asia, said in a telephone interview with the news service. "The WHO will have to take the Japanese cases into consideration when deciding whether to raise the pandemic alert."

But many countries, including Britain, China and Japan, are urging the WHO to consider how deadly a virus might be -- not just the extent of its spread -- before declaring a pandemic, the Associated Press reported. Officials from these countries cited the potential economic impact of a swine flu pandemic declaration, as well as decisions that would need to be made regarding vaccination.

In the United States, while most cases of swine flu continue to be no worse than seasonal flu, the death rate from the new H1N1 virus is slightly higher than that seen with seasonal flu, U.S. health officials said Monday.

"Our best estimate right now is that the fatality [rate] is likely a little bit higher than seasonal influenza, but not necessarily substantially higher," Dr. Anne Schuchat, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interim deputy director for science and public health program, said during an afternoon teleconference.

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