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Swine Flu Now a Pandemic: WHO
Date:6/11/2009

Rapid worldwide spread triggered the announcement, experts say

THURSDAY, June 11 (HealthDay News) -- The World Health Organization on Thursday declared the first influenza pandemic since 1968, triggered by the H1N1 virus's rapid spread across North America, Australia, South America, Europe and regions beyond, agency officials said.

The move pushes the WHO alert status on the swine flu outbreak from phase 5, where it has remained for weeks, to its highest and pandemic level of phase 6.

WHO had convened an emergency teleconference earlier in the day to discuss the situation with leading flu experts, the Associated Press reported.

A surge in cases of H1N1 swine flu in Australia might have been the final criteria needed to tip the balance and spur a pandemic declaration, agency officials had warned on Tuesday.

Cases in Australia rose by more than 1,000 on Monday, with most occurring in the southern state of Victoria. Rapid spread of the virus in a region beyond North America has been considered a key factor in labeling the outbreak a pandemic.

A pandemic declaration does not mean that cases have gotten more severe, one expert noted.

"A World Health Organization level 6, which in effect states that H1N1 infections are now worldwide in distribution, is simply a declaration of the extent of geographic spread, and not a statement of severity of the clinical disease," said Dr. Pascal James Imperato, former New York City health commissioner and dean of public health at the State University of New York's Downstate Medical Center. "The disease remains relatively mild in most people. A positive consequence of this declaration is that it empowers countries to move forward with vaccine production."

On Tuesday, WHO flu chief Keiji Fukuda said the agency was concerned about the possible "adverse effects" of moving the alert from its current status of phase 5 to the highest level, phase 6, indicating a full pandemic, the AP reported. Fukuda cited concerns over possible panic among the public or inappropriate steps taken by governments.

On Wednesday, WHO director Margaret Chan held a teleconference with representatives from eight countries with large swine flu outbreaks to determine if a pandemic should be declared.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is slate to hold its own press conference on the H1N1 outbreak at 12:45 pm Thursday.

According to the latest WHO data, there are now 27,737 reported cases of swine flu infection across 74 countries, including 141 deaths. That includes 13,217 cases and 27 deaths reported as of June 5 in the United States by officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though the vast majority of infections and deaths have occurred in Mexico (the source of the outbreak) and the United States, person-to-person transmission is now being reported in Australia and Chile, as well as Great Britain, Spain and Japan, according to published reports.

But Fukuda also expressed concern Tuesday about reports of unusually large numbers of severe cases among Canada's Inuit population, according to AP.

The vast majority of swine flu cases globally have remained mild, but some of the deaths have occurred in otherwise healthy people, the WHO noted. "Approximately half the people who have died from this H1N1 infection have previously been healthy people," Fukuda said. He called that "one of the observations which has given us the most concern."

Since the outbreak started in April, health officials in the United States have also said that infections have been mild for the most part, and most people recover fairly quickly. Testing has found that the H1N1 virus remains susceptible to two common antiviral drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza.

During the next few months, CDC scientists will be looking to see if the swine flu virus mutates or becomes resistant to antiviral medications or is more easily spread among people.

U.S. health officials have said there's no way to tell now if the H1N1 virus will be more virulent when -- and if -- it returns to the Northern Hemisphere with the approach of winter.

A vaccine for the swine flu virus could be ready by October, if research and testing proceed on pace this summer. Candidate viruses have been shipped to vaccine manufacturers, agency officials said.

It's still not clear whether such a vaccine is needed. Any decision to move forward would be based on several factors, including the severity and spread of the virus and whether there's a safe and effective vaccine, the CDC has said.

U.S. Human Cases of H1N1 Flu Infection
(As of June 5, 2009, 11:00 AM ET)
States and Territories* # of
confirmed and
probable cases
Deaths
Alabama
94
 
Alaska
3
 
Arkansas
9
 
Arizona
547
4 deaths
California
973
 
Colorado
75
 
Connecticut
395
1 death
Delaware
142
 
Florida
247
 
Georgia
33
 
Hawaii
115
 
Idaho
16
 
Illinois
1357
5
Indiana
173
 
Iowa
92
 
Kansas
92
 
Kentucky
96
 
Louisiana
134
 
Maine
17
 
Maryland
89
 
Massachusetts
787
 
Michigan
298
1 death
Minnesota
82
 
Mississippi
40
 
Missouri
46
1 death
Montana
15
 
Nebraska
60
 
Nevada
128
 
New Hampshire
64
 
New Jersey
148
 
New Mexico
108
 
New York
858
8 deaths
North Carolina
30
 
North Dakota
23
 
Ohio
35
 
Oklahoma
93
 
Oregon
167
 
Pennsylvania
299
 
Rhode Island
18
 
South Carolina
60
 
South Dakota
10
 
Tennessee
104
 
Texas
1670
3 deaths
Utah
461
2 deaths
Vermont
9
 
Virginia
55
1 death
Washington
577
1 death
Washington, D.C.
24
 
West Virginia
6
 
Wisconsin
2217
 
Wyoming
25
 
Territories
Puerto Rico
1 case
 
TOTAL*(52)
13,217 cases
27 deaths
*includes the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

More information

For more on swine flu, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.



SOURCES: Pascal James Imperato, M.D., M.P.H., dean, Graduate Program in Public Health, State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, New York City; Associated Press; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


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