(by Mike Esterl, WSJ.com) – The World Health Organization will hold an emergency meeting on Thursday as the H1N1 swine flu virus continues to spread around the globe, increasing the likelihood a pandemic will be declared.
But the United Nations public-health agency also has stressed that the influenza strain, which it characterizes as “moderate” in severity, doesn’t appear to have grown more virulent in recent weeks, as the agency attempts to keep a lid on fears.
Health officials are monitoring developments in Australia, which could trigger the pandemic declaration. Confirmed cases in Australia top 1,200, more than triple as many as a week ago. More cases also are being confirmed in Europe and other parts of the world.
“We are getting really very close to knowing we are in a pandemic situation,” Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s top flu official, told reporters Tuesday.
As of Wednesday, WHO reported 27,737 confirmed cases of the virus in 74 countries, including 141 deaths.
The Geneva-based agency has kept its global pandemic alert level at phase 5 since late April, one level below a full-blown pandemic. A pandemic is declared following significant outbreaks in at least two regions of the globe.
A declaration would require all countries, including those that haven’t yet reported any cases, to launch pandemic-prevention plans and step up monitoring efforts. The last flu pandemic declaration was in 1968.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan consulted on Wednesday with several countries as the agency weighs its next step.
U.S. health authorities say a pandemic declaration won’t have any impact on how they tackle H1N1 because they took measures to track and contain the virus when it arrived more than a month ago.
“We’ve been very aggressive since the very beginning,” said Carolyn Bridges, an associate director at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nearly half of the world’s confirmed swine flu cases, or 13,217, are in the U.S., including 27 deaths, according to WHO.
WHO says it is still trying to eliminate misunderstandings about the virus to prevent overreactions in some countries. Many people infected with the virus haven’t required hospitalization.
Health officials also say H1N1 isn’t transmitted through pork and that most travel restrictions aren’t necessary.
But the U.N. agency wants to make sure countries are as prepared as possible to contain the virus. It also hasn’t ruled out that H1N1 could turn into a more virulent strain or affect different populations differently.
“We are really at the beginning of the spread of this virus,” said Mr. Fukuda, adding that there was still “great uncertainty.”
Write to Mike Esterl at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. How many people have died around the world from the swine flu (H1N1 flu virus)? How many of those deaths were in the U.S.?
2. a) Define pandemic.
b) What will cause the WHO to declare a pandemic?
c) In what year was the last flu pandemic declared?
3. What would a pandemic declaration require countries around the world to do?
4. Why won’t the declaration of a pandemic have any impact on the U.S.?
5. Why is the WHO trying to eliminate misunderstandings about the virus?
6. Read the information from science/health blogger Michael Fumento in the “Background” box below. How does this information affect your thinking about the possibility of the swine flu becoming a pandemic? Explain your answer.
(Think about the following from Michael Fumento’s blog):
The World Health Organization (WHO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN) that acts as a coordinating authority on international public health.
Visit the World Health Organization website at who.int/en.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (or CDC) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The CDC focuses national attention on developing and applying disease prevention and control (especially infectious diseases), environmental health, occupational safety and health, health promotion, prevention and education activities designed to improve the health of the people of the United States.
Visit the Centers for Disease Control flu webpage at cdc.gov/h1n1flu.