Dr. Margaret Chan, director of the World Health Organization (WHO), today announced that the global public health alert for the H1N1 flu outbreak from Phase 4 to Phase 5. Phase 5 means there is a genuine risk of a global pandemic, but the outbreak does not yet constitute a global pandemic.
Dr. Chan warned that actions need to be taken by governments around the world in order to lessen the likelihood that what is still a series of localized hotspots in the US and elsewhere outside Mexico could evolve into a pandemic. She is quoted on the WHO website saying:
On the positive side, the world is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history.
Preparedness measures undertaken because of the threat from H5N1 avian influenza were an investment, and we are now benefitting from this investment.
For the first time in history, we can track the evolution of a pandemic in real-time.
The ability to track the evolution of a pandemic in real time means that health officials across the world can share data and release necessary warnings, updating them according to the optimum potential effectiveness in that moment at that location of any given course of prevention, treatment or containment efforts.
Chan thanked the governments of Mexico, the US and Canada, for their cooperation in quickly releasing new data and making available the results of their ongoing investigations into the virus itself and the spread of the outbreak. She noted that flu viruses are notoriously quick to mutate and given to unpredictable behavior, but that measures can be developed to combat the spread of the virus before it reaches pandemic status.
The WHO director also spoke directly to the governments of the world, urging that:
All countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans. Countries should remain on high alert for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia.
At this stage, effective and essential measures include heightened surveillance, early detection and treatment of cases, and infection control in all health facilities.
This change to a higher phase of alert is a signal to governments, to ministries of health and other ministries, to the pharmaceutical industry and the business community that certain actions should now be undertaken with increased urgency, and at an accelerated pace.
The H1N1 virus is a ‘multi-strain’ influenza virus not previously experienced by the human population. It contains a mix of genetic coding allowing it to target avian populations, swine or human beings, and due to a lack of accumulated immune conditioning, the human population is particularly vulnerable, once the virus starts to spread.
Chan’s remarks suggested the WHO will treat the H1N1 outbreak as an emerging pandemic, as she said specifically “The biggest question, right now, is this: how severe will the pandemic be, especially now at the start?” She noted that the “full clinical spectrum” of this particular strain of flu could range “from mild illness to severe disease”, varying from patient to patient.
With over 150 reported dead in Mexico, and just one death outside Mexico, a toddler reported to be visiting family in Texas, a wide range of patient experiences has already been seen. Another case of a two-year-old in the Philadelphia area has reportedly resulted in full recovery, suggesting that even small children may not be uniformly vulnerable to the new flu strain.
Urging governments to increase preparedness and noting that at present, the H1N1 strain of flu is not fully understood, but that it soon will be, Chan sought to sound a diplomatic note of optimism, saying “Above all, this is an opportunity for global solidarity as we look for responses and solutions that benefit all countries, all of humanity.” She added, however, that “it really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic.”