WHO ramps up swine flu alert even higher

30 Apr 2009

The bad news – the World Health Organization (WHO) has raised the current level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 4 to 5.

The good news – countries throughout the globe are better prepared to deal with a deadly new disease than at any time in history.

WHO’s director-general Dr Margaret Chan – no stranger to pandemics, having presided over Hongkong’s controversial handling of SARS in 2003 as director of health – has urged governments to immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans. Measures revolve around heightened surveillance, early detection and treatment of cases and infection control in all facilities.

Chan said experiences with H5N1 avian influenza had resulted in investment in contingency programmes that “we are now benefitting from”.

She added: “For the first time in history, we can track the evolution of a pandemic in real-time.”

Increased government transparency concerning results of their investigations “helps us understand the disease,” she said.

It was the first time WHO had declared a Phase 5 outbreak, the second-highest on its threat scale, indicating a pandemic could be imminent. Germany and Austria became the latest countries to report swine flu infections yesterday, with cases already confirmed in Canada, Britain, Israel, New Zealand and Spain. A toddler, who succumbed in Texas, became the first death outside Mexico, which has been identified as the epicentre of the infection with 160 fatalities.

In the Asia, South Korea has reported five suspected cases in addition to a "probable" case revealed earlier.

Scientists are concluding that somewhere in the world, months or even a year ago, a pig virus jumped to a human and mutated, and has been spreading between humans ever since. Unlike with bird flu, doctors say, there is still no evidence to suggest a direct pig-to-human infection from this strain, which is why culling of this farm animal has not yet taken place. However, individual countries like Egypt are taking matters into their own hands, slaughtering 250,000 pigs in the country, eaten mainly by the Coptic Christian minority

While most deaths from the disease have occurred in Mexico, it has yet to be proven as the flu’s exact point of origin. According to the country’s chief epidemiologist, one of the deaths directly attributed to swine flu was that of a Bangladeshi immigrant, who had lived in Mexico for six months. The unnamed man was visited by a brother who arrived from Bangladesh or Pakistan and was reportedly ill. The relative has since left, his whereabouts unknown.

Experts are not ruling out that the flu could have been brought in from Bangladesh or Pakistan.

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Margie T Logarta and the wires

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