World Health Organization says Pandemic Imminent and Issues Phase 5 Alert for Swine Flu Pandemic
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By Associated Press
Wednesday, April 29, 2009 - Updated 0m ago
GENEVA — The World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert for swine flu to the second highest level today, meaning that it believes a global outbreak of the disease is imminent.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan declared the phase 5 alert after consulting with flu experts from around the world. The decision could lead the global body to recommend additional measures to combat the outbreak, including asking vaccine manufacturers to switch production from seasonal flu vaccines to a pandemic vaccine.
"All countries should immediately now activate their pandemic preparedness plans," Chan told reporters in Geneva. "It really is all of humanity that is under threat in a pandemic."
A phase 5 alert means there is sustained transmission among people in at least two countries. Once the virus shows effective transmission in two different regions of the world, a full pandemic outbreak would be declared.
WHO has confirmed human cases of swine flu in Mexico, the United States, Canada, Britain, Israel, New Zealand and Spain. Mexico and the U.S. have reported deaths.
WHO’s flu chief Keiji Fukuda said it was clear that the virus is spreading. "We don’t see any evidence that it is slowing down at this point," he said.
Chan earlier today hosted a "scientific review" of the latest outbreak information, at which some 150 experts examined how swine flu spreads, its symptoms and how it can be treated.
Swine flu is suspected of killing more than 150 people in Mexico and sickening over 2,400 there, according to authorities there.
WHO has confirmed 114 cases of swine flu in seven countries, but reports are still coming in. Over half of the confirmed cases — 64 — are in the United States.
In an interview with CNN, Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, confirmed the flu death of a 23-month-old child in Texas — the first death outside Mexico.
WHO experts were still trying to determine just how dangerous the virus is, said Dr. Nikki Shindo, a WHO flu expert.
"The one thing we don’t really understand is why the cases in Mexico are so severe," she said, adding that WHO is looking into whether the Mexican cases involve underlying medical conditions that have caused people there to fare worse than patients elsewhere.
Shindo told The Associated Press before the scientific review that "hundreds of thousands" of people in Mexico could theoretically be infected with swine flu even if they are showing no or only mild symptoms.
"The tricky thing is the virus will evolve very, very quickly, so we have to continuously monitor it," she said.
In the past, most swine flu patients have shown only mild symptoms, and the disease tends to be far less serious in humans than the bird flu virus that has infected at least 421 people and killed 257 in the last six years.
Shindo said it was important to keep in mind that even normal flu outbreaks kill people. In poor countries such as Madagascar and Congo, outbreaks of seasonal influenza have infected up to half of the population, with mortality rates reaching 1 percent.
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