The head of the United Nations health agency today warned that the recent outbreak of a deadly new strain of the flu virus, known as swine flu, reported in parts of Mexico and the United States, has the potential to become a pandemic.
According to media reports, the new infection is suspected to have killed more than 60 people in three Mexican cities and sickened at least eight people in the border states of California and Texas in the US. The virus may have also spread to New York and Kansas.
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan noted that the situation is evolving quickly. “We do not yet have a complete picture of the epidemiology or the risk, including possible spread beyond the currently affected areas.”
Although WHO can not predict whether the recent outbreak will become pandemic on the basis of current evidence, the agency said the swine flu cases in Mexico and the US are of the same genetic animal strain of the H1N1 virus. The animal virus has begun infecting people, giving it pandemic potential.
WHO epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists operating in offices around the world reported no indication of similar outbreaks in other regions at present, noted Ms. Chan.
She told reporters in Geneva, however, that “this is a serious situation which must be watched very closely.”
All of the eight people reported to have contracted the virus in the US have recovered and the cases have been mild, but in Mexico “we are seeing a range of severity from mild to severe and some deaths.”
The Director-General urged health officials within countries to be alert to outbreaks of influenza like illness or pneumonia, especially if they occur outside the normal flu season, and to note excess cases of severe or fatal flu like illness in groups other than young children and the elderly, who are usually at highest risk.
Both Mexico and the US are working closely with WHO to address the newly emerging infection, and a meeting was convened today of an emergency committee to evaluate the evidence and advise Ms. Chan on an appropriate course of action.
“The committee will also advise me on whether WHO needs to introduce any temporary measures in the interest of protecting international health,” said Ms. Chan.
Based on immediate advice from the committee, the Director-General has determined that the outbreak constitutes a phase 3, of six phases, public health emergency of international concern.