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EUR: WHO declares flu pandemic

By Hui Min Neo
12 Jun 2009 3:28 AM

GENEVA, June 11 AFP - The swine flu crisis has escalated into the world's first influenza pandemic in 40 years, the World Health Organisation has declared, after infecting tens of thousands of people in 74 countries.

WHO director-general Margaret Chan says the declaration of a "moderate" pandemic should not be a cause for panic and does not mean the death toll from A(H1N1), which stands at less than 150, will sharply increase.

The UN body says it is neither recommending the closure of borders nor restrictions in movement of people, goods and services in the wake of its declaration.

However it is now clear the virus is spreading among communities beyond outside the Americas, where it was first detected in April, and the world must guard against complacency.

"We will be raising our pandemic alert level to level six; and this means that the world is moving into the early days of its first influenza pandemic in the 21st century," Chan told reporters on Thursday after a meeting of scientific experts to discuss the virus and its spread.

"At this time, the global assessment is that we are seeing a moderate pandemic," she added.

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

The latest figures from the organisation show that the number of reported A(H1N1) infections has reached 27,737 in 74 countries, including 141 deaths.

The vast majority of the deaths have been in Mexico, the original epicentre of the outbreak, and no deaths have been announced outside the Americas.

"Moving to pandemic phase six level does not imply we will see an increase in number of deaths or very severe cases," said Chan.

"Quite on the contrary, many people having mild disease will recover without medicine in some cases, and it is good news, but the tendency to move into complacency is our biggest concern because we need to continue to monitor this virus, follow its track and do not allow it to come back in the second wave to give us more trouble."

Chan said the health agency is concerned that the virus is causing "very severe disease disproportionately" among people 30 to 50 years old.

"These are people who were previously healthy and they suffer severe disease and also many of them die," she said.

The 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.

In Australia, four swine flu victims were admitted to intensive care wards on Thursday.

Hong Kong authorities ordered all primary schools in the city to be closed for two weeks on Thursday 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 Duesseldorf was closed after 27 children tested positive for the virus.

Following the announcement, the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies were mobilising to respond to the pandemic.

"Red Cross and Red Crescent societies all over the world must be mobilised and ready to respond to the crisis and implement their role as auxiliaries to their governments," said Dominique Praplan, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies' health and care department.

Chan said it was up to individual countries to decide how to proceed given the outbreak was now classified as a pandemic.

"The global level assessment is very different from national level assessment because it has to take into account the vulnerability of the population in a specific country and also the health system resilience," she said.

Although no vaccine against A(H1N1) has yet to be produced, drug companies are looking to come up with one by the end of June or early July and last month sent three "seed viruses" to drug companies for use in making a vaccine.

Chan said the WHO would ask drug-makers to quickly prepare to produce swine flu vaccines once the production of seasonal flu shots ends in the next couple of weeks.

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.