WHO director: Pandemic alert level will not be raised

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Margaret Chan, director of the UN's WHO
Image: Agência Brasil.

The H1N1 swine flu has now spread to many parts of the globe. The World Health Organisation reports that there are 8,829 confirmed cases in forty countries, most of them in Mexico and the United States. 76 people have been confirmed dead from the influenza.

Many countries, among them China, Japan, and the United Kingdom, have warned the WHO to be cautious about declaring a global pandemic. They say that such an announcement, if delivered prematurely, could cause mass panic and confusion. WHO director Margaret Chan said that the organisation had listened to the countries' concerns, and will not raise the pandemic alert level from five to six, on a scale of one to six. A transition to the sixth level means that the disease is circulating actively on at least two continents.

"On 29 April, I raised the level of pandemic influenza alert from phase 4 to phase 5. We remain in phase 5 today. This virus may have given us a grace period, but we do not know how long this grace period will last. No one can say whether this is just the calm before the storm," Chan said at the WHO's annual meeting. However, she added that the disease could possibly pose a very serious threat to the world's population.

"I strongly urge the international community to use this grace period wisely. I strongly urge you to look closely at anything and everything we can do, collectively, to protect developing countries from, once again, bearing the brunt of a global contagion."

"A new influenza virus with great pandemic potential, the new influenza A (H1N1) strain, has emerged," Chan said.

Chan said the WHO hadn't yet told antiviral manufacturers to start producing a specific vaccine for this specific strain of the virus. She urged countries to be careful and not squander their medical supplies, saying that "manufacturing capacity for antiviral drugs and influenza vaccines is finite and insufficient for a world with 6.8 billion inhabitants.

"It is absolutely essential that countries do not squander these precious resources through poorly targeted measures," Chan said.

Estimates by the WHO suggest that as many as two billion doses of vaccine could be produced per year if needed, although the first ones would not be available for four months to half a year.

UK Secretary of Health Alan Johnson said the organisation needs to have more flexibility in its pandemic alert levels to take into consideration how severe the virus is. "We need more time – we need to give you more time. My proposal is that you should have more flexibility. A pandemic describes the geographic spread rather than its severity and it's very important that that is reflected in your ability to move to phase six," he said.