Monday, May 18, 2009

Pandemic 'inminent': WHO

Students attend a class wearing protective masks as a precaution against swine flu in Panama City, Thursday, May 14, 2009. -- PHOTO: AP
GENEVA - HUMANITY may be witnessing an influenza pandemic unfold, the head of the World Health Organisation said on Monday, as Japan reported a big jump in infections with the newly-discovered H1N1 virus.

Flu fears dominated the start of the WHO's annual congress in Geneva, where many of the 40 countries touched by the flu strain urged the United Nations agency to rethink its pandemic alert scale that is now at the second-highest notch.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the outbreak that began in North America and has stretched to Europe, Asia and South America needed to be tackled with seriousness even though its symptoms appear to be largely mild.

'For the first time in humanity, we are seeing, or we may be seeing, pandemic influenza evolving in front of our eyes,' Ms Chan told the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva, where rich and poor governments discussed their drug, vaccine and other needs.

'We are all under pressure to make urgent and far-reaching decisions in an atmosphere of considerable scientific uncertainty,' Ms Chan told the annual congress, which was shortened in length to allow health ministers to go home earlier and resume their monitoring for flu infections.

According to the WHO's latest tally, 74 people have died from H1N1 infection. Most of the other nearly 9,000 patients have suffered mild effects like fever and diarrhoea from the bug that is a genetic mix of swine, bird and human viruses.

But its rapid spread between people and across countries has caused the WHO to raise the alert and declare a pandemic is 'imminent,' a designation that reflects views on the way the new virus is spreading and not the seriousness of its effects.

Mexico, Britain, China, Egypt, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates were among those who called at the opening-day session for the WHO to rethink its criteria for declaring a pandemic, which under current rules would occur when the virus is spreading in a sustained way in two regions of the world.

British Health Secretary Alan Johnson said the 'mechanistic process' now in place seems to give the wrong public impression about the seriousness of the flu, which can be treated without drugs in most cases.

Ms Chan, who also fought bird flu and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) in her tenure as Hong Kong health director, said she would consider the request that came just as the number of infections in Japan, Britain and Spain approached critical mass. -- REUTERS

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