The international influenza pandemic alert remains at phase four, on a six-level warning scale, the United Nations health agency said today, as the count of swine flu infections continues to rise.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that at present there are 79 cases – up from yesterday’s tally of 73 – worldwide of the new H1N1 influenza strain, otherwise known as swine flu because it is thought to have originated from pigs.
The virus has infected 40 people across the United States, 26 in Mexico and 6 in Canada, according to WHO, which also noted that there are verified reports of 2 cases in Spain, 2 in the United Kingdom and 3 in New Zealand.
“There have been seven deaths among this total number of cases, all of which are reported in Mexico,” WHO Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda told reporters in Geneva.
Mr. Fukuda pointed out that the number of swine flu infections WHO reports are only of laboratory confirmed cases specific to the virus and not the suspected numbers of H1N1 human contaminations presented in the media.
Although WHO has determined that the disease has spread to a number of different countries, it is only in Mexico that swine flu has reached sustained levels of person-to-person infections, which warrants a phase 4 alert.
Mr. Fukuda highlighted that the phase 4 alert recognises the increased risk of a pandemic, but does not mean the virus will necessarily spread to different countries and be transmitted to large numbers of people.
“It is too early to say that pandemic is inevitable but it is a possibility,” he said, adding that it is also too early to determine the origins of this new strain of the influenza virus.
He noted there is still no good explanation as to why cases of the infection in Mexico have appeared more severe than in other countries.
Although the evolution of the outbreak into a pandemic is not certain, Mr. Fukuda underscored the importance for countries to prepare themselves for the possibility of the global spread of the disease.
“We are beginning to focus on the anticipated needs of developing countries if the pandemic should develop,” he said. “We know from the analysis of past pandemics and we also know from many infectious diseases and health problems that the poor and the developing countries are the ones that really get hit the hardest.”
Developing countries also have the least resources to deal with a health emergency, warned Mr. Fukuda, while calling on the international community to help meet the demands a crisis may place on the poor.
WHO is working to facilitate the process needed to develop a vaccine effective against the swine flu virus, which the agency noted could take around 4 to 6 months. In addition, several more months would be needed to produce a suitably large amount of the vaccine.
According to a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) on the disease compiled by WHO, influenza viruses change very quickly. It is important to develop a vaccine against the currently circulating virus strain for it to provide maximum protection to those vaccinated.