Seeing the swine flu virus spread within a raft of countries, the United Nations health agency today raised the international alert to Phase 5 on a six-point scale, signalling an imminent pandemic and urging all countries to intensify preparations.
“This change to a higher alert is a signal to Governments, to ministries of health and other ministries, to the pharmaceutical and the business communities, that certain actions now should be undertaken with extreme urgency,” Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) said in announcing the move during a teleconference with the world press.
“All countries should immediately now activate their pandemic surveillance plans,” she said, calling on all to remain on high alert for clusters of influenza-like illness and pneumonia. Early detection and treatment of cases, and infection controls in all health facilities were also critical, she said.
Alert Phase 5 meant that sustained human to human transmission had been confirmed, with widespread community outbreaks, in at least two countries in one WHO region, she said.
International cooperation was particularly important she maintained, warning that the H1N1 influenza virus has shown its “capacity to spread rapidly to every country in the world.”
She added that she had reached out to donor countries and international organizations to mobilize resources, particularly for developing countries which are usually more vulnerable to the deadliest effects of pandemics.
Fortunately, she said the world is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than any time in history, due to the substantial investments made to prepare for the H5N1 virus, or avian flu. “For the first time in history, we can track the evolution of a pandemic in real time,” she said.
She thanked countries, particularly the United States, Canada and Mexico, for their strong cooperation with WHO since the outbreak became evident.
“New diseases, by definition, are poorly understood, and WHO and health authorities will not have all the answers immediately,” she acknowledged, while vowing, “But we will get them.”
The agency, she pledged, would continue tracking the virus at the epidemiological, clinical and biological levels, and make their information public as soon as it is analyzed.
In an earlier teleconference today, WHO Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda said that there has been an increase in lab-confirmed cases – from 79 yesterday to 114 – been reported in Canada, the US, Mexico, Israel, Spain, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
“It’s clear that the virus is spreading, and we don’t see any evidence of it slowing down at this point,” Mr. Fukuda said
He said that while preliminary results showed that the virus did originate in pigs, he stressed that there is no evidence that people are now getting sick from pigs or pork products.
He emphasized that experts are continuing to study the situation and that there are still unanswered questions – for example, it is currently unclear whether people, upon becoming infected, will develop mild or severe illness.
Yesterday, Mr. Fukuda said that 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, plus more months to build up substantial stocks.
Meanwhile, today at the Security Council, which is holding an open debate on the situation of children caught up in armed conflict, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated his call for international unity on the swine flu outbreak.
“This really requires the whole international community’s cooperation, and I count on the leadership and commitment of not only the Council member States, but the whole international community,” he said.