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Spike In Australian H1N1 Cases Could Lead WHO To Declare Pandemic

The H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak could soon be declared the first flu pandemic in 41 years after a recent jump in the number of confirmed cases in Australia, WHO officials said Tuesday, the AP/Google.com reports (Jordans, AP/Google.com, 6/9).

“The number of confirmed cases in Australia surpassed 1,200 on Monday, and the virus is no longer restricted to schools and other institutions there, suggesting that community-wide spread has begun” writes the Los Angeles Times (Maugh, Los Angeles Times, 6/10). “The total means Australia has seen a four-fold increase in a week,” the BBC reports (BBC, 6/9). “Such a spread in two regions of the world — it already has been observed in North America — is the primary criterion for raising the alert level to Phase 6,” according to the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles Times, 6/10).

However, “Some flu experts think the world already is in a pandemic and that WHO has caved in to country requests that a declaration be postponed,” AP/Google.com writes. “On the surface of it, I think we are in Phase 6” – the equivalent of a pandemic, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said. The WHO on Wednesday will hold a conference call with international governments in order to confirm the latest reports that the virus has become established outside of North America, HealthDay News/Forbes reports. “Once I get indisputable evidence, I will make the announcement,” Chan said (HealthDay News/Forbes, 6/9).

“We very clearly see what is going on in Australia, but what we’re doing is working very hard to make sure that everyone is in the best position as we get closer to a Phase 6 declaration,” WHO’s acting Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukada said. Bloomberg writes, “Raising the WHO’s six-step pandemic scale to its highest level might cause people who are healthy to flock to hospitals, preventing the sick from getting care, [Fukada] said,” during a conference call with reporters Tuesday (Serafino, Bloomberg, 6/9).

Fukada cautioned the organization was working to best prepare international governments to mitigate the global panic that could follow an announcement of an H1N1 pandemic (AP/Google.com, 6/9). Additionally, “[Fukada said] the WHO is doing a lot of work on communications, on vaccine development, on improving the anti-viral supply, and on developing clinical guidelines,” according to Environment News Service (ENS, 6/9).

“By going to Phase 6, what this would mean is that the spread of the virus continues and activity has become established in at least two regions in the world. It doesn’t mean that the severity of the situation has increased,” Fukada reemphasized Tuesday, AFP/Google.com reports.

The WHO on Tuesday also noted that there are a “disproportionate number of serious cases” of swine flu among Inuit populations in Canada, AFP/Google.com reports. “At this time, we know that a larger number than expected of young Inuit people did develop serious illness and has had to get hospitalised,” Fukada said. “We know in past pandemics that Inuit populations were very severely hit, that’s why these reports raised such concerns to us” (AFP/Google.com, 6/9).

The WHO last raised its flu pandemic alert for H1N1, signifying that a pandemic was imminent, on April 29. CQ HealthBeat reports, “Fukuda said that 73 nations have reported cases of the H1N1 virus and 26,563 cases resulting in 140 deaths. The virus is the same as was seen several weeks ago and continues to be sensitive to antiviral drugs, he said. The majority of infections continue to occur in people younger than 60, although not exclusively, and about half of those affected have not had chronic underlying conditions, he said” (Norman, CQ HealthBeat, 6/9).