WHO poised to declare flu pandemic

12th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

Officials and sources said a decision had been taken at the meeting of scientific experts to raise the pandemic alert level to the maximum level.

Geneva -- The World Health Organisation was poised to declare its first influenza pandemic in 40 years after an emergency meeting of scientific experts Thursday on a swine flu outbreak which has hit 74 countries.

A formal declaration was expected after the UN body's chief Margaret Chan briefs diplomats at its Geneva headquarters but officials and sources said a decision had been taken at the meeting of scientific experts to raise the pandemic alert level to the maximum level.

Sweden's government issued a statement saying Health Minister Maria Larsson was to hold a press conference later Thursday following "the WHO's decision to raise the pandemic level to six for the influenza A(H1N1)."

Scotland's Health Minister Nicola Sturgeon also said that it was "likely in light of sustained community transmission in countries outside of North America ... that level six will be declared later today."

Chan herself was due to attend a briefing with reporters at the WHO's headquarters scheduled for 1600 GMT.

The expected declaration comes amid growing evidence that the virus, which originated in Mexico two months ago, is now being widely transmitted between humans in Asia and Europe as well as the Americas.

Under WHO guidelines, one key criteria for declaring a pandemic is established community spread in a country outside the first region the disease was reported.

The UN body raised its six-phase alert level to five at the end of April, indicating that a pandemic is imminent, and officials said earlier this week that a decision to move up to the maximum level was "very, very close".

If a pandemic is indeed declared many countries will have to think about changing their approach to the virus, the WHO said.

Countries such as Australia, Britain or Japan, which are reporting growing numbers of infections, should wind down certain activities as there would no longer be such an emphasis on gathering data about the spread of the virus.

"It is therefore less important to trace contacts, to quarantine patients or to conduct laboratory tests on samples," WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said ahead of the scientific experts' meeting, adding their emphasis should shift from detection and containment to treatment.

Countries where the disease was widespread like Mexico or the United States need not change their approach, but those where the virus is yet to be detected should think about early containment of A(H1N1) through quarantining, he said.

On Wednesday, the number of A(H1N1) infections reported to the health agency by 74 countries had reached 27,737, including 141 deaths.

The figures were released before authorities in Guatemala reported the country's first swine flu-related death, when a 12-year-old boy stricken by the virus died from kidney failure.

Guatemala is the eighth nation to report a death linked to swine flu. All are in the Americas and the Caribbean.

The vast majority of deaths have been in Mexico where 108 are known to have been killed by the virus. More than 6,133 have been infected there.

The impact of the outbreak is being felt in all corners of the globe.

Hong Kong authorities Thursday ordered all primary schools in the city to be closed for two weeks after the first cluster of local swine flu cases was found in the Chinese territory.

Meanwhile in Germany, a school for Japanese youngsters in the western city of Düsseldorf was closed after 27 children tested positive for the virus.

And in Australia, four swine flu victims were admitted to intensive care wards Thursday.

The last flu pandemic came after an outbreak of the H3N2 viral strain from 1968-69, which originated in Hong Kong, and went on to kill up to two million people.

Hui Min Neo/AFP/Expatica

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