GENEVA (AP) - The World Health Organization declared a swine flu
pandemic Thursday - the first global flu epidemic in 41 years - as
infections in the United States, Europe, Australia, South America
and elsewhere climbed to nearly 30,000 cases.
The long-awaited pandemic announcement is scientific
confirmation that a new flu virus has emerged and is quickly
circling the globe. WHO will now ask drugmakers to speed up
production of a swine flu vaccine, which it said would available
after September. The declaration will also prompt governments to
devote more money toward efforts to contain the virus.
WHO chief Dr. Margaret Chan made the announcement Thursday after
the U.N. agency held an emergency meeting with flu experts. Chan
said she was moving to phase 6 - the agency's highest alert level -
which means a pandemic, or global epidemic, is under way.
"The world is moving into the early days of its first influenza
pandemic in the 21st century," Chan told reporters. "The virus is
"However, we do not expect to see a sudden and dramatic jump in
the number of severe and fatal infections," she added.
On Thursday, WHO said 74 countries had reported 28,774 cases of
swine flu, including 144 deaths. Chan described the danger posed by
the virus as "moderate."
The agency has stressed that most cases are mild and require no
treatment, but the fear is that a rash of new infections could
overwhelm hospitals and health authorities - especially in poorer
Still, about half of the people who have died from swine flu
were previously young and healthy - people who are not usually
susceptible to flu. Swine flu is also crowding out regular flu
viruses. Both features are typical of pandemic flu viruses.
The last pandemic - the Hong Kong flu of 1968 - killed about 1
million people. Ordinary flu kills about 250,000 to 500,000 people
Swine flu is also continuing to spread during the start of
summer in the northern hemisphere. Normally, flu viruses disappear
with warm weather, but swine flu is proving to be resilient.
"What this declaration does do is remind the world that flu
viruses like H1N1 need to be taken seriously," said Kathleen
Sebelius, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, warning
that more cases could crop up in the fall.
"We need to start preparing now in order to be ready for a
possible H1N1 immunization campaign starting in late September,"
she said in a statement from Washington.
Chan said WHO was now recommending that flu vaccine makers start
making swine flu vaccine. Drug giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC said they
could start large-scale production of pandemic vaccine in July but
that it would take several months before large quantities would be
Glaxo spokesman Stephen Rea said the company's first doses of
vaccine would be reserved for countries who had ordered it in
advance, including Belgium, Britain and France. He said the company
would also donate 50 million doses to WHO for poor countries.
Pascal Barollier, a spokesman for Sanofi-Aventis, said they were
also working on a pandemic vaccine but WHO had not yet asked them
to start producing mass quantities of it.
The pandemic decision might have been made much earlier if WHO
had more accurate information about swine flu's rising sweep
through Europe. Chan said she called the emergency meeting with flu
experts after concerns were raised that some countries like Britain
were not accurately reporting their cases.
Chan said the experts unanimously agreed there was a wider
spread of swine flu than what was being reported.
Chan would not say which country tipped the world into the
pandemic, but the agency's top flu expert, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, said
the situation from Australia seemed to indicate the virus was
spreading rapidly there - up to 1,260 cases late Wednesday.
Many health experts said the world has been in a pandemic for
weeks but WHO became bogged down by politics. In May, several
countries urged WHO not to declare a pandemic, fearing it would
cause social and economic turmoil.
"This is WHO finally catching up with the facts," said Michael
Osterholm, a flu expert at the University of Minnesota.
Despite WHO's hopes, Thursday's announcement will almost
certainly spark panic about spread of swine flu in some countries.
Fear has already gripped Argentina, where thousands of people
worried about swine flu flooded into hospitals this week, bringing
emergency health services in the capital of Buenos Aires to the
brink of collapse. Last month, a bus arriving in Argentina from
Chile was stoned by people who thought a passenger on it had swine
Chile has the most swine flu cases in South America, and the
southern hemisphere is moving into its winter flu season.
In Hong Kong on Thursday, the government ordered all
kindergartens and primary schools closed for two weeks after a
dozen students tested positive for swine flu. The decision affected
over half a million students.
In the United States, where there have been more than 13,000
cases and at least 27 deaths from swine flu, officials at the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the move would not
change how the U.S. tackled swine flu.
"Our actions in the past month have been as if there was a
pandemic in this country," Glen Nowak, a CDC spokesman, said
The U.S. government has already increased the availability of
flu-fighting medicines and authorized $1 billion for the
development of a new swine flu vaccine. In addition, new cases seem
to be declining in many parts of the country, U.S. health officials
say, as North America moves out of its traditional winter flu
Still, New York City reported three more swine flu deaths
Thursday, including one child under 2, one teenager and one person
in their 30s.
"Countries where outbreaks appear to have peaked should prepare
for a second wave of infection," Chan warned, adding that the
virus could mutate "without rhyme or reason, at any time."
In Mexico, where the epidemic was first detected, the outbreak
peaked in April. Mexico now has less than 30 cases reported a day,
down from an average of 300, Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova
told The Associated Press. Mexico has confirmed 6,337 cases,
including 108 deaths.
Cordova said he is concerned that other countries were not
taking drastic measures to stop its spread like Mexico, which
closed schools, restaurants, theaters, and canceled public events.
He said the Mexican government has strengthened its detection
system to spot cases in most of its 32 states to prepare for a
possible second wave of infections in the winter.
"There's much anxiety over how the virus will act in the
Southern Hemisphere, because the zone is currently showing a large
number of new cases, in particular Australia, Chile and
Argentina," Cordova said.
Many experts said the declaration of a pandemic did not mean the
virus was getting deadlier.
"People might imagine a virus is now going to rush in and kill
everyone," said John Oxford, a professor of virology at St. Bart's
and Royal London Hospital. "That's not going to happen."
But Oxford said the swine flu virus might evolve into a more
dangerous strain in the future.
"That is always a possibility with influenza viruses," he
said. "We have to watch very carefully to see what this virus
AP Medical Writers Maria Cheng reported from London and Michael
Stobbe reported from Atlanta. Associated Press Writers Michael E.
Miller in Mexico City, Dikky Sinn in Hong Kong, Vincente L. Panetta
in Buenos Aires and Bradley S. Klapper in Geneva also contributed
to this report.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)