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WHO To Incorporate Disease Severity Into Pandemic Alert Scale

A meeting of the WHO’s emergency committee held Friday to discuss the H1N1 (swine) flu ended without a pandemic declaration, but experts concluded that declarations would now be based upon the severity and transmission pattern of a virus, Reuters reports (Nebehay, Reuters, 6/5). “The Emergency Committee is composed of international experts and its task is to give advice to the WHO chief on influenza outbreak responses,” according to Xinhua writes (Xinhua, 6/6).

“There was a broad consensus on the importance of including information on severity in future announcements,” explained the WHO in a statement released after Friday’s meeting. According to Reuters, “The experts … made recommendations on a number of factors to be taken into account to assess the severity of an epidemic, it said, without giving details.”

The committee “maintained their advice against closing borders or restricting international travel to try to halt the continued spread of the H1N1 influenza virus, measures deemed ineffective” and also sustained support for seasonal flu vaccine production “as work proceeds on developing a vaccine against the new strain,” Reuters writes. WHO officials said deciding whether to raise the pandemic alert system to phase 6 – signifying H1N1 to be a pandemic – was not “on the formal agenda” (Reuters, 6/5).

The WHO on Monday confirmed that 73 countries have officially reported 25,288 cases of influenza A(H1N1) infection, including 139 deaths. A full list of country cases and deaths is available here (WHO Influenza A(H1N1) – update 45, 6/8).

New CDC Director Discusses H1N1, ‘Winnable Battles In Global Health’

When CDC director Thomas Frieden assumes his new post as the director of the CDC on Monday, one of his continued focuses will be to track the spread of H1N1 in the U.S. and support similar efforts around the world, the Wall Street Journal reports.

“The former New York City health commissioner has been on the front lines of a local H1N1 outbreak that as of Friday had been linked to the deaths of eight people and hundreds of hospitalizations. Dr. Frieden now faces the challenge of helping guide the national response to the virus, while strengthening the CDC’s scientific programs and carving out a sizable role for it in the Obama administration’s broader health-care overhaul effort,” the Wall Street Journal writes.

“There are still lots of unanswered questions [regarding H1N1 flu] – its case fatality rate, vaccine efficacy, the potential impact on the elderly,” Frieden said, adding, “The key is getting data; one of the most important things is global data.” The CDC is helping to support the efforts of global health officials tracking the spread of H1N1.

“He said he saw a strong role for the CDC in global health. The agency helps global health officials track diseases, investigate outbreaks and strengthen public-health programs around the world,” Wall Street Journal writes. “There are a lot of winnable battles in global health,” Frieden said (McKay, Wall Street Journal, 6/6).

Bipartisan Commission Says Diverting Biological Attack Preparedness Funds For H1N1 ‘Will Leave Nation Less, Not More, Prepared’

The Washington Post examines the arguments of the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism that President Obama’s recent request to support the production of a swine flu vaccine with “funds set aside to develop defenses against biological attacks would weaken the nation’s preparedness for terrorism” written in a letter sent to Obama sent Sunday.

The letter comes less than a week after the White House asked Congress “for authority to spend up to $9 billion more for an H1N1 flu vaccine and other preparations against the novel flu strain that first appeared in April,” the Washington Post writes.

“Of the total, the administration asked Congress to provide $2 billion in ‘contingent’ funding. Another $3 billion could come from the Project BioShield Special Reserve Fund, created in 2004 to field countermeasures against nuclear, biological or chemical threats; $3.1 billion from stimulus funds appropriated to spur economic recovery; and $800 million from the Department of Health and Human Services,” according to the Washington Post.

“‘Using BioShield funds for flu preparedness will severely diminish the nation’s efforts to prepare for WMD events and will leave the nation less, not more, prepared,’ the commission’s chairman, former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), and vice chairman, former senator James M. Talent (R-Mo.), wrote,” the Washington Post says. The former senators also sent a letter dated Wednesday to Obama’s budget director, Peter Orszag (Hsu, Washington Post, 6/8).