Jun 11, 2009 2:35 PM GMT
The world is in a swine flu pandemic, WHO tells some members
The World Health Organization has privately told several countries that the global pandemic level will be raised to Phase 6 before the end of Thursday, as experts held an emergency meeting in Geneva to discuss the spread of the virus.
Health ministries in Thailand and Indonesia said an email alert from WHO advised them that a pandemic would be declared by midnight local time.
WHO director general Margaret Chan called an emergency conference call with leading flu experts to discuss the outbreak of the virus, which has spread to 74 countries.
Chan will hold a press conference at 11:30 a.m. ET, when she is expected to make the official announcement that a pandemic has been declared.
Moving to Phase 6 — the highest level — means a pandemic has been confirmed and the H1N1 virus is spreading from person to person in a sustained manner outside North America, where the outbreak began in April.
A pandemic declaration indicates geographic spread, not the severity of the illness.
The declaration would mark the first pandemic call since 1968, when Hong Kong flu killed about one million people.
Health officials from Scotland, Indonesia and Thailand said the United Nations health agency would raise the pandemic alert level to Phase 6 after the teleconference concluded on Thursday. Officials with the UN have also said they expect the declaration of the global pandemic is imminent.
Some countries alerted already
"It is likely in light of sustained community transmission in countries outside of North America — most notably in Australia — that Level 6 will be declared," Scotland's Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon told Scottish legislators, adding the announcement would be made Thursday.
"We are ready, because we have the experience with bird flu," Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari told reporters. "The Health Ministry is on the highest alert and people need not panic. We have sent a circular to all hospitals to prepare themselves."
Seasonal flu kills about 250,000 to 500,000 people each year.
The WHO's latest statistics indicate the virus has infected 27,737 people in 74 countries and caused 141 deaths. Most of the cases have been in North America, but Europe and Australia have seen a sharp increase in recent days.
The WHO had been trying to ready the world for a pandemic declaration for some time, saying the new H1N1 virus shows no signs of abating.
A pandemic declaration would prompt drugmakers — which is expected to be ready by the end of year — to speed up the production of a swine flu vaccine, and prompt government to invoke their pandemic plans and increase efforts to contain the virus.
Countries' individual pandemic plans could include investing more money into health services, imposing quarantines, closing schools, travel bans and trade restrictions.
The WHO has said it does not support travel bans or trade restrictions in the wake of swine flu.
"The disease is pretty moderate in its effects so far, so you wouldn't want to disrupt daily like too much," said WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl. "We're not in an Armageddon scenario."
The spike in infections in Australia is one reason the world would be pushed to the pandemic level. The WHO listed Australia's confirmed cases at 1,224 by late Wednesday.
Dr. Donald Low, medical director of Ontario's public health laboratories, said much of the world has already been treating the virus as though it was a pandemic for several weeks.
"I don't see what would possibly change calling this a pandemic," Low said.
The virus is already widespread across Canada, and he doesn't foresee any panic being triggered by a pandemic declaration, he said.
As of Monday, 2,446 laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1 flu virus have been reported in all provinces and territories except Newfoundland and Labrador, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. There have been four deaths related to swine flu in the country.
Earlier this week, the WHO's top flu expert, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, said despite the fact people dismiss the illness as mild, the WHO believes a swine flu pandemic will turn out to be of moderate severity.
Though most cases of the virus have been mild, there are concerns a rash of new infections, especially in the Southern Hemisphere where it is currently winter and flu season, could overwhelm hospitals in poorer countries.