Monday, July 27, 2009
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the first influenza pandemic in four decades in June, and the A(H1N1) virus has, in the words of one WHO official, since become “unstoppable.”
More than 800 deaths have been linked to the virus, and though the WHO no longer provides figures on the number of infected people worldwide, swine flu has spread to 160 of the organization’s 193 member states.
In addition to the death toll, lives have been disrupted in countless ways, including school closings, changes in church rituals and warnings that vulnerable Muslims should not embark on the pilgrimage to Mecca.
In the United Nations, handshakes are now reserved for meetings between ambassadors.
The great fear among experts is that the virus could mutate into a more virulent form and leave far more damage in its wake.
“There are many questions for which we have no answers,” said WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl. “We don’t know how the virus will change going forward.
“In the southern hemisphere, we see that it is spreading well but also in the northern hemisphere. The question is what will the virus do during our winter? We do not know.”
The virus was first uncovered in Mexico and combines swine, human and avian influenza. Most deaths have been concentrated in the Americas, with the United States, Argentina and Mexico recording the highest number of fatalities.
Amid the winter months of the southern hemisphere, the spread of the virus has gained pace, but even in the north, where summer is in full swing, infections have multiplied.
In Britain, Europe’s worst-hit territory, it is estimated that 100,000 people were infected the week before last.
Health experts have found so far that the majority of patients are recovering, even without medical treatment, a week after the appearance of the first symptoms.
The WHO has asked countries to stop systematic testing of all cases, but it has asked health authorities to report irregular symptoms.
“For the moment, we haven’t seen any changes in the behaviour of the virus. What we’re seeing is a geographical expansion,” said Hartl.
In the northern hemisphere, new targeted responses to the flu are beginning to be unveiled.
Britain launched a swine flu hotline to give those who believe they are infected access to anti-viral drugs without seeing a doctor.
France has asked those with flu symptoms to contact their family doctors, who are expected to prescribe flu drugs and masks. It has also placed an advance order for 90-million vaccines, joining other countries like the United States that have ordered stockpiles early.
The development of vaccines is ongoing and Novartis has said clinical trials will start as early as this month.
While a vaccine should be available in September or October, health authorities in the northern hemisphere fear that it would be too late to cope with the rapid onset of winter.
It also remains unclear if one or two injections are necessary to guarantee immunity against the illness, making it difficult to estimate the potential coverage of the production capacity of the vaccine.
Even those who have not contracted the virus have seen their lives affected.