The World Health Organization is inching closer to raising the infectious disease alert level for the H1N1 influenza outbreak to its highest level, indicating that a pandemic has arrived, but has delayed doing so in an effort to prepare national health organizations and populations for the effect of such an announcement, said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director general of the agency, in a telephone news conference Tuesday.
The number of confirmed cases of the disease rose above 1,200 in Australia on Monday and the virus is no longer restricted to schools and other institutions in that country, suggesting that a communitywide spread has begun. Such a spread in a region outside North America is the primary criterion for raising the alert level to Phase 6.
“One of the critical issues is that we do not want people to over-panic if they hear that we are in a pandemic situation,” Fukuda said.
WHO officials worry that a pandemic declaration would lead people with mild illnesses to flood emergency rooms and might lead to border closings, travel restrictions and other “unwarranted” actions.
In the early stages of the current outbreak, Fukuda said, people stopped eating pork, pig herds were killed, and imports of pork were restricted by some countries. “These are the kinds of potential adverse effects” that the agency is trying to avoid, he said.
Reporters repeatedly pressed Fukuda about why, given the clear spread in Australia, the agency has not increased the alert level. “We are really getting very close to that,” he said. “We are working very hard to ensure that everyone is prepared for that.”
As of Tuesday, Fukuda said, there have been 126,563 laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1, or swine, flu in 73 countries, with 140 deaths. In the U.S., the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 13,217 confirmed cases and 27 deaths.