- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

The World Health Organization on Thursday elevated the swine flu outbreak to global pandemic, for the first time in more than 40 years putting a virus at the highest level possible, reacting to the H1N1 influenza spreading across the world at a rapid pace.

U.S. health officials said they are in the process of developing a vaccine and that the WHO warning will help remind people they should remain “vigilant” for the upcoming flu season by taking precautions about covering sneezes and washing hands.

As the number of cases swelled to nearly 28,000 across 74 countries, the WHO announced it was raising the alert level from phase 5 to 6, the level of global outbreak, but did not restrict travel or border crossings.

“The virus writes the rules and this one, like all influenza viruses, can change the rules, without rhyme or reason, at any time,” said Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO.

Despite telling reporters the virus is “now unstoppable,” Dr. Chan said H1N1 is spreading “under a close and careful watch” and stressed that world health officials are positioned to reap the benefits of pandemic planning over the past five years.

“We have a head start. This places us in a strong position. But it also creates a demand for advice and reassurance in the midst of limited data and considerable scientific uncertainty,” she said, later adding, “We are all in this together, and we will all get through this, together.”

In the United States, where more than 13,000 H1N1 cases have been confirmed, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas R. Frieden said the WHO move was no surprise because they were already operating at pandemic level “for some time now.”

“This is not at this point a flu that’s anywhere near as severe as the flu in 1918, for example,” he said, adding the new designation sends “a strong message the virus is here, it’s in all likelihood here to stay and it’s important we continue our aggressive efforts to respond.”

The last pandemic, the1968 Hong Kong flu, killed about 1 million people, while more than the 250,000 to 500,000 people die each year from ordinary influenza.

Dr. Frieden said the CDC will continue “intensive” preparation over the next few months and hopes to have a vaccine in place by the fall. Officials stressed the Obama administration has freed up $1 billion for vaccine development and for clinical trials.

Officials stressed the virus is behaving in the same manner since it first emerged in the United States and Mexico in April, but said its rate of transfer among humans worldwide makes it a pandemic.

Assistant Surgeon General Anne Schuchat said the cases are most prevalent in the New England area, especially in Massachusetts, and in New York and New Jersey.

“It’s important to recognize we have to keep our eye out for this,” she said. “People think flu season is over but we need to remain vigilant.”

“This phase 6 means a pandemic is under way, [but] we’ve been reacting as though we were in a pandemic already,” she said.

Dr. Schuchat said countries must “dust off” their pandemic plans and follow America’s lead and take aggressive steps. “We’re really all in this together around the world,” she said.

The White House echoed that sentiment, with deputy press secretary Bill Burton calling the WHO action “more an issue of geography than intensity.”

“The president has always treated this as a very serious issue,” Mr. Burton said. “Our response will be as aggressive as it has been in making sure we’re doing everything possible to mitigate its spread.”

H1N1 has run counter to the usual influenza trend, disproportionately affecting younger people and pregnant women when most flu viruses have most severely impacted the elderly.

The officials said they don’t expect this pandemic to change plans for the regular influenza season and its vaccination plan.

The WHO said as of Wednesday 74 countries have officially reported 27,737 cases of the infection, including 141 deaths.

In the U.S., the influenza has reached every state and has led to 27 deaths, a number that is expected to increase soon, with more than 13,000 cases reported and more than 1,000 hospitalizations.

Mexico has more than 6,000 cases and Australian officials reported more than 1,200 cases Wednesday.

Dr. Schuchat said drugmakers are in the early stages of manufacturing a vaccine, and the Associated Press reported the WHO will now ask drugmakers to speed up production of a swine flu vaccine. The AP also reported that GlaxoSmithKline said it would take months before mass amounts of pandemic vaccine could be ready.

The health officials suggested a doctor visit for infants, people with asthma or pregnant women if they have a fever higher than 104 degrees, along with a cough or sore throat.

Dr. Frieden said the CDC is coordinating with schools and various churches and faith organizations to make sure people have proper prevention information.

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