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
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