Friday, June 12, 2009

Swine Flu 'not stoppable', WHO says

Updated at: 0442 PST, Friday, June 12, 2009

GENEVA: The World Health Organization raised the swine flu alert Thursday to its highest level, saying the H1N1 virus has spread to enough countries to be considered a global pandemic.

Increasing the alert to Phase 6 does not mean that the disease is deadlier or more dangerous than before, just that it has spread to more countries, the WHO said.

"This is an important and challenging day for all of us," WHO Director General Margaret Chan said in a briefing with reporters. "We are moving into the early days of the first flu pandemic of the 21st century."

The last previous pandemic occurred in 1968.

As of Thursday, the virus had spread to 74 countries, the health agency said. There were 28,774 confirmed cases and 144 deaths.

The United States had 13,217 cases and 27 deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said June 5 in its weekly update. Cases have been reported in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

The U.S. death toll is expected be higher when the CDC releases its latest figures Friday, said Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

New England -- particularly Massachusetts -- and the New York and New Jersey areas have been hit the hardest, Schuchat said Thursday at a CDC news conference.

The Phase 6 pandemic designation had been widely expected for weeks.

"Further spread is considered inevitable," Chan said at a news conference at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. "The scientific criteria for an influenza pandemic have been met."

The announcement came after a meeting of the WHO's Emergency Committee, which has debated since April whether the spread of a novel H1N1 flu virus was fast and widespread enough to warrant a Phase 6 designation.

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