Subjects: Public health
The World Health Organization has decided to designate the H1N1 (swine) flu outbreak as a pandemic, as the number of confirmed cases raced toward 30,000 in 74 countries, killing 144. It’s the first flu pandemic since the Hong Kong flu of 1968.
As per protocol, the WHO will now ask vaccine producers to ramp up production of a vaccine against the strain.
The declaration also automatically obligates governments to focus additional resources on virus containment.
Coincident with the WHO announcement, America’s CDC upgraded the virus to a level 6, the highest possible level. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC urged citizens to stay calm and continue implementing normal precautions.
“The world is moving into the early days of its first influenza pandemic in the 21st century,” WHO chief Margaret Chan told reporters. “The (H1N1 flu) virus is now unstoppable. However, we do not expect to see a sudden jump in the number of severe and fatal infections,” she added.
So far, most cases of H1N1 flu have been mild, but it remains possible the virus could mutate into something more dangerous. And since the inception of the epidemic, the virus has been unusually harsh on young, previously healthy people. Nearly half of all deaths from the virus have occurred in this demographic.
The Hong Kong flu killed about a million people, which is 2-4 times the worldwide death rate caused by flu in non-pandemic years.
Drug maker GlaxoSmithKline has indicated it plans to begin commercial production of an H1N1 vaccine in July. It will be several months after that before the company could make available large quantities of the jab.
Peter Cordingley, a WHO spokesperson based in Manila cautioned that the word pandemic was “a measure of the spread of the virus, not the severity of the virus.” The virus’s effects are moderate at the moment, he told the Wall Street Journal. “But it’s still going to infect an awful lot of people.”