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Aimity Financial arrow News Room arrow Swine Flu Fans First Pandemic Since 1968, WHO Says
Swine Flu Fans First Pandemic Since 1968, WHO Says PDF
Swine flu, causing mostly mild disease outbreaks on four continents, prompted the World Health Organization to declare the first influenza pandemic since 1968.

Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director-general, moved the alert to the top of the agency’s six-stage pandemic scale today on evidence the virus is spreading in communities outside the Americas. The new H1N1 flu strain has taken root in Australia, Chile, the U.K. and Spain since its discovery in Mexico and the U.S. in April.

The pandemic declaration confirms the fourth time in the last century a new influenza strain has swept across the globe. It’s the third time since April 27 that Geneva-based WHO has raised the alert level over swine flu, which has turned up in more than 70 nations as far removed as Iceland, New Zealand and the Bahamas. The move doesn’t mean there will be more deaths or severe cases, Chan said.

“We are seeing a moderate pandemic,” Chan told reporters on a conference call before making the announcement. “We are satisfied that this virus is spreading to a number of countries and it is not stoppable.”

Drugmakers will be finishing their production of seasonal influenza vaccine for the Northern Hemisphere winter in coming weeks, Chan said.

“We would advise them, as soon as they finish their seasonal vaccine production, quickly prepare to make commercial- scale pandemic vaccine,” she said.

Response Plans

WHO urged countries not to implement pandemic response plans designed for a more severe threat after government leaders said last month that moving to phase 6 may spur some countries to restrict travel, ban public events and adopt other measures that aren’t needed for mild flu, worsening the deepest economic slump since the Great Depression.

“Some political leaders worry about some unwarranted overreaction and some are also concerned that, because of the mildness of the disease, people will say ‘so what’s the big deal about pandemic?’” she said. “The balance between overreaction or complacency is another issue that’s of great concern.”

U.S. health officials said they won’t be changing their response to the virus based on the new pandemic designation and have already been responding to the outbreak like they would for a pandemic. There have been more than 13,000 confirmed cases in the U.S., which have caused about 1,000 hospitalizations and 27 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

‘Strong Message’

“For all intensive purposes, the U.S. government has been in phase 6 of the pandemic level for some time,” Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, said in a conference call today with reporters. “This does send a strong message that the virus is here and likely to stay.”

In the U.S., the virus has been most severe in children, young adults and those with asthma or who are pregnant, Frieden said. The virus has spread the most widely in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. About 7 percent of New Yorkers likely had swine flu in May, according to a survey released yesterday by the New York City health department.

The United Nations health agency doesn’t advise border closures or restrictions on travel and trade, Chan said.

WHO is watching for any sign the disease is worsening as the germ circulates during the Southern Hemisphere’s flu season, creating opportunities for its genes to mutate or combine with those of other viruses, including the H5N1 bird flu strain that’s lethal in three of every five reported cases. The new virus has genes from other strains that have sickened humans, pigs and birds.

Biggest Concern

“The tendency to move into complacency is our biggest concern because we need to continue to monitor this virus, follow its track and not allow it to come back in the second wave to give us more trouble,” Chan said.

A study in the May 11 edition of the journal Science found that 4 of every 1,000 people infected with the bug in Mexico by late April died, and the WHO said the virus “appears to be more contagious” than seasonal flu, which kills 250,000 to 500,000 people each year.

“We are dealing with a new disease,” Chan said. “We are dealing with a lot of unknowns. It is understandable that certain communities may have overreaction, may have high levels of anxiety.”

More than 28,000 cases of swine flu have been confirmed, including at least 144 deaths, WHO said today. Unlike seasonal flu, which causes the most death and disease among the “frail elderly,” Chan said the new bug is preferentially targeting the young and causing potentially fatal complications in otherwise healthy people aged 30 to 50, pregnant women and those with asthma, diabetes and obesity.

Health Complications

Most of the patient data has been collected in more developed countries and it’s not yet known what impact the disease will have on countries with weaker health systems burdened by HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, WHO said.

A pandemic is an unexpected outbreak of a new contagious disease that spreads from person to person across multiple borders. In such cases, almost no one has natural immunity.

WHO raised its alert to phase 4 on April 27 and to phase 5 on April 29, and said a move to the highest level was imminent.

Three main human flu strains -- H3N2, another H1N1 variant and type-B -- circulate and infect as many as 5 million people a year in seasonal epidemics, according to the WHO. Most seasonal flu patients experience two to seven days of illness and recover without medical treatment.

Past Pandemics

Three pandemics have occurred in the last century: the Spanish flu in 1918, the Asian flu in 1957 and the Hong Kong flu in 1968. The 1918 pandemic killed an estimated 40 million to 50 million people worldwide and is considered one of the deadliest diseases in human history, according to WHO. The Science study estimates the new H1N1 virus is as severe as the 1957 Asian flu, which caused about 2 million deaths.

The death toll from a pandemic depends on the number of people infected, the virulence of the bug, the vulnerability of affected populations, and the effectiveness of preventive measures, according to WHO. Hundreds of millions of people may catch swine flu, according to WHO.

The three pandemics of the 20th century encircled the globe in six to nine months, even when most international travel was by ship, WHO said. A flu virus could spread more rapidly now because of air travel, reaching all continents in less than three months, the agency said.

Authorities advised hand washing, hygiene and staying home if sick as the most effective ways to control the outbreak.


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