WHO resists declaring pandemic over swine flu
The organisation is holding off raising the alert to level six despite the recent increase in cases in Japan and the US.Geneva – The World Health Organisation Monday cautioned against declaring a full-fledged swine flu pandemic yet, even as cases in Japan and the United States soared and a New York school official died of the virus.
WHO chief Margaret Chan told member states on the first day of the UN health body's annual assembly they may be facing a "calm before the storm", but that the organisation had so far held off on raising the alert.
"We remain in phase five," she said, following speculation the alert would be raised to the maximum six after new cases emerged in Japan. Level five only indicates a pandemic is imminent.
"We need to warn the public whenever necessary but reassure them whenever possible. This is a difficult balancing act," the WHO director general told a special debate on the new A(H1N1) virus.
WHO officials have warned that sustained transmission in a country outside the Americas, where it first emerged, without a direct link to travellers, would warrant declaration of a pandemic, or global spread of the virus.
Japan shuttered some 2,000 schools and kindergartens after swine flu cases there shot up to 163 and authorities warned the real number of infections could already be in the hundreds.
In New York, 12 schools have been temporarily closed after the death of a 55-year-old assistant principal at a school in the borough of Queens, bringing the nation's death toll to six.
Separately, the US government reported Monday more than 400 new cases, to take the nation's total number of infections above 5,000.
"We cannot stop the virus from spreading. We should not be surprised to see more cases," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned.
Chan, who can declare a pandemic after consulting a panel of scientists, acknowledged the scientific uncertainty and the need for more information on the virus that emerged in Mexico and the United States a few weeks ago.
"We do not know how long this period will take, if this is the calm before the storm," Chan told the assembly, adding that there was "every reason to be concerned with the interaction with other viruses."
Britain's Health Secretary Alan Johnson led calls for caution, backed by New Zealand, Japan, Switzerland, the head of the Pan American Health Organisation, the WHO's regional body for the Americas as well as other countries.
"I think you, as you and others have said, need more time, we need more time to study this," Johnson said.
Besides not raising the alert level, the WHO also advised the pharmaceutical industry against switching its production focus onto the new swine flu virus, recommending that making seasonal flu vaccines was still the priority.
More than 8,800 swine flu cases have been confirmed in 40 countries and more than 70 people have died.
Greece became the latest country to report its first confirmed case of swine flu, a 19-year-old man who recently returned from the United States, junior health minister Georges Papagiorgos told reporters.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has downgraded a travel warning for Mexico, but top official Anne Schuchat took issue with media reporting that is now playing down the outbreak.
"The H1N1 virus is not going away, despite what you may have heard," she told reporters, stressing that the number of confirmed cases in the United States may be only the "tip of the iceberg".
Until Friday, Japan thought it had kept the virus at bay. The majority of the 163 new cases are concentrated in Kobe and Osaka after two high schools met for a volleyball tournament, with some players and coaches feeling feverish after the games.
Authorities said the real number of infections could already be in the hundreds with the virus spreading fast in the densely populated island nation.
"This is not just a matter for Hyogo and Osaka," said Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe. "We have to act swiftly by assuming the virus is already widespread across the country."
AFP / Expatica