12 June, 2009

It's official: Swine flu is pandemic !

It's official: We're in a swine flu pandemic, the World Health Organization declared today.

On the basis of available evidence and expert assessments of the evidence, the scientific criteria for an influenza pandemic have been met. The Director-General of WHO has therefore decided to raise the level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 5 to phase 6.

Pandemic Status Means Swine Flu Bug Is More Widespread, Not More Severe.

"The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic," WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, MD, said at a news conference.

That sounds scary. But neither the H1N1 swine flu virus nor the disease it causes are any worse today than they were weeks ago.

The only thing that's changed is that the WHO now officially acknowledges that H1N1 swine flu is circulating in communities in widespread parts of the globe, and that all nations can eventually expect to see cases.

"This does not mean there is any difference in the severity of the flu. This is not, at this point, a flu pandemic that is anywhere as severe as the 1918 pandemic," said Thomas R. Frieden, MD, in his first news conference since taking over as director of the CDC.

The last previous pandemic occurred in 1968.

As of Thursday, the virus had spread to 74 countries, the health agency said. There were 28,774 confirmed cases and 144 deaths.

The United States had 13,217 cases and 27 deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said June 5 in its weekly update. Cases have been reported in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Phase 6, Chan said, is meant as a signal to countries to recalibrate their strategies to minimize the harm from swine flu. In countries where the virus and the response to it are already widespread, it is not likely to mean significant changes, but Chan urged countries that have not seen cases, or seen only limited cases, to get ready.

"The virus is not stoppable," she said. "I would advise them to maintain vigilance, enhance surveillance and be prepared for the arrival of the novel H1N1 in their country."

Discussions about shifting to Phase 6 have been under way for weeks. Chan indicated that a major factor in the decision was surveillance from countries in the Southern Hemisphere, where flu season is under way. In Chile and Australia, two countries with many flu cases, she said H1N1 appears to be the dominant strain, "crowding out" the seasonal influenza virus.

Chan said she would recommend that vaccine manufacturers proceed with mass production of an inoculation against the new swine flu strain as soon as they finish production of seasonal vaccine, which she estimated would be complete in about two weeks.

Swine Flu seems to target the young, under 25 years of age, and its symptoms are those of a simple cold and fever. The WHO is asking anyone who presents these symptoms to have a check up. Means to reduce infection are the usual precautions: Good personal hygiene, such as washing hands, avoid crowded public places, or close contact with someone who has the virus.

For the WHO, one of the worst case scenarios for the future is a possible mutation of the A/H1N1 virus into a more virulent form that will hit the northern hemisphere next winter, following the same patter of the Spanish Flu of 1926 that killed upwards of 50 million people.

The last global pandemic was the Hong Kong Flu of 1968, which left 1 million people dead. Ordinary flu usually causes the deaths of between 250 to 500 thousand people.

In Malaysia, more drastic measures including greater screening at entry points into the country will kick in with the declaration of a pandemic for influenza A(H1N1), said Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai.

Other measures included taking passengers’ temperatures before disembarkation and controlling human traffic from an affected township or village, he said.

He said the ministry would be drawing up a plan to prepare Malaysia for a possible Level Six scenario.

Liow also announced that two more cases of influenza A (H1N1) had been confirmed in Malaysia, bringing the total to 11.

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