With swine flu infections now confirmed in four different countries, the United Nations health agency said today that it may raise the international pandemic alert, as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasized that the world body is working rapidly to control the outbreak.
WHO said it might elevate the level to phase 4 or 5 – out of six – for the first time since the current warning system was introduced in 2005 in response to the avian influenza crisis.
A WHO emergency committee, set up to to advise on the recent outbreak of the deadly new strand of the flu virus, is currently meeting to determine the status of the pandemic alert level.
The agency reported that there are confirmed cases in Canada, Mexico, Spain and the United States, and that there are rumours of the infection spreading to others.
“We now have 40 reported cases in the United States and approximately 26 in Mexico, others in Canada and we now have a verified case in Spain,” a WHO spokesperson told reporters in Geneva.
Phase 5 of the WHO pandemic alert levels is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region.
“The declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short,” says the agency’s website.
The geographic spread and the increasing number of human cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) has brought forward the second meeting of the WHO emergency committee to today.
“We are concerned that in Mexico most of those who died were young and healthy adults,” the Secretary-General told the media in New York. The elderly and infants are usually the most vulnerable to influenza.
“If we are indeed facing a pandemic, we need to demonstrate global solidarity,” he said. “The swine flu outbreak demonstrates yet again that in our inter-connected world, no nation can deal with threats of such dimensions on its own.”
Announcing that the World Bank and other UN development and humanitarian agencies will provide funding to countries needing additional resources to combat an epidemic, Mr. Ban said that the poorer nations must not be hit disproportionately hard by a potential health crisis.
“So far, our response has been an example of multilateral cooperation at its best. I am confident that it will continue to be so,” he added.