(AP) The World Health Organization declared a Type A H1N1 influenza pandemic Thursday — the first global flu epidemic in 41 years — as infections in the United States, Europe, Australia, South America and elsewhere climbed to nearly 30,000 cases.
In a statement sent to member countries, WHO said it decided to raise the pandemic warning level from phase 5 to 6 — its highest alert — after holding an emergency meeting with its experts.
The long-awaited pandemic decision is scientific confirmation that a new flu virus has emerged and is quickly circling the globe. It will trigger drugmakers to speed up production of a Type A H1N1 flu vaccine and prompt governments to devote more money toward efforts to contain the virus.
"At this early stage, the pandemic can be characterized globally as being moderate in severity," WHO said in the statement, urging nations not to close borders or restrict travel and trade. "(We) remain in close dialogue with influenza vaccine manufacturers."
The agency has stressed that most cases are mild and require no treatment, but the fear is that a rash of new infections could overwhelm hospitals and health authorities — especially in poorer countries.
Still, about half of the people who have died from H1N1 flu were previously young and healthy — people who are not usually susceptible to flu.
Type A H1N1 flu is also continuing to spread during the start of summer in the northern hemisphere. Normally, flu viruses disappear with warm weather, but Type A H1N1 flu is proving to be resilient.
Ordinary flu kills about 250,000 to 500,000 people each year. The last pandemic — the Hong Kong flu of 1968 — killed about 1 million people.
Many health experts say WHO's pandemic declaration could have come weeks earlier but the agency became bogged down by politics. In May, several countries urged WHO not to declare a pandemic, fearing it would cause social and economic turmoil.
"This is WHO finally catching up with the facts," said Michael Osterholm, a flu expert at the University of Minnesota who has advised the U.S. government on pandemic preparations.
Despite WHO's hopes, raising the epidemic alert to the highest level will almost certainly spark some panic about spread of Type A H1N1 flu.
Fear has already gripped Argentina, where thousands of people worried about flu flooded into hospitals this week, bringing emergency health services in the capital of Buenos Aires to the brink of collapse. Last month, a bus arriving in Argentina from Chile was stoned by people who thought a passenger on it had swine flu. Chile has the most flu cases in South America.
In Hong Kong on Thursday, the government ordered all kindergartens and primary schools closed for two weeks after a dozen students tested positive for Type A H1N1 flu — a move that some flu experts would consider an overreaction.
In the United States, where there have been more than 13,000 cases and at least 27 deaths from Type A H1N1 influenza, officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the move would not change how the U.S. tackled the outbreak.
"Our actions in the past month have been as if there was a pandemic in this country," Glen Nowak, a CDC spokesman, said Thursday.
The U.S. government has already taken steps like increasing availability of flu-fighting medicines and authorizing $1 billion for the development of a new vaccine against the novel virus. In addition, new cases seem to be declining in many parts of the country, U.S. health officials say, as North America moves out of its traditional winter flu season.
Still, Osterholm said the declaration was a wake-up call for the world. "I think a lot of people think we're done with swine flu, but you can't fall asleep at the wheel," he said. "We don't know what's going to happen in the next 6 to 12 months."
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Source: Associated Press