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WHO Debates Whether To Declare Flu Pandemic

A pandemic only can be declared when transmission becomes widespread in two regions of the world.
(RFE/RL) -- The World Health Organization (WHO) is consulting with its emergency committee of flu experts as the UN agency debates whether to declare a swine flu pandemic.

A decision to declare a pandemic could trigger large-scale production of vaccines as the flu continues spreading worldwide.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan
Over the past days, the UN health agency has come increasingly close to declaring a pandemic, but has so far stopped short, even though the head of the organization, Margaret Chan, says she believes the spread of the H1N1 flu virus already has reached pandemic proportions.

Under WHO guidelines, however, a pandemic only can be declared when transmission becomes widespread in two regions of the world.

And for this reason, the UN agency has waited to collect clear evidence that the flu strain – popularly known as swine flu – has indeed reached that level.

The June 11 meeting of the emergency committee of flu experts will help determine if that is the case. It comes just a day after reports from 74 countries to WHO indicated that the total number of confirmed flu infections worldwide has reached 27,737. The infections have resulted in 141 deaths.

'Getting Close'

Speaking to the press in Geneva on June 10, the head of the WHO’s global influenza program, Keiji Fukuda, said the flu threat has “evolved a lot” in recent days.

“We are getting close to knowing that we are in a pandemic situation,” he said.

We are getting close to knowing that we are in a pandemic situation.
If the WHO does declare a pandemic, that would be a signal to health officials worldwide to plan for the possibility of larger numbers of people catching the virus.

And the declaration could prompt pharmaceutical companies to speed up the production of vaccines in an effort to counter the flu’s spread.

The disease, which was first detected in Mexico in March, is considered particularly threatening to younger adults.

“So far, among the cases being seen everywhere, including the counties with a large number of cases, [we see] that the people being infected continue to be relatively younger people," Fukuda said last week.

"So, in general, we are seeing the infections occurring in people who are younger than 60 in almost all countries. There are some exceptions but, in general, the bulk of infections are occurring in younger people. And when the investigators are looking at the average age of people getting infected, this is often in the age range of people around the 20s, mid-20s, a little above, a little below,” Fukuda added.

Over the past weeks, the H1N1 virus has spread from the Western Hemisphere to Eurasia as infected people travel across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

In the most recent developments, authorities on June 11 confirmed 27 cases of the H1N1 virus at a Japanese school in Dusseldorf, Germany. The school has closed until next week and the infected children are now in quarantine.

Hong Kong Flu

On the other side of the globe, Hong Kong has ordered all kindergartens and primary schools in its territory closed for two weeks after 12 students were found infected with the virus there.

If the WHO declares that the spread of H1N1 virus has reached the pandemic level, it will mark the first flu pandemic since the Hong Kong flu of 1968.

The Hong Kong flu killed about 1 million people. By comparison, ordinary flu kills about 250,000 to 500,000 people each year.

Since the H1N1 virus appeared, the WHO has steadily raised the alert level. Currently, the WHO rates the threat at five on its six-point scale, meaning the agency considers a global outbreak to be imminent.

The agency says it has resisted raising the alert to the final level – a confirmed pandemic – until it has clear evidence that the disease is going to keep spreading.

Fukuda has said that before declaring a pandemic, he wants to make certain that countries are prepared, so as to avoid panic or an "adverse reaction” to the news.