Too Soon to Say H1N1 Pandemic Over, WHO’s Fukuda Says
It’s too soon to say that the H1N1 influenza pandemic has passed because the rate of infection remains high in countries including France, Switzerland and Kazakhstan, the World Health Organization said.
“It is still too early to make such a call,” Keiji Fukuda, the special adviser to the WHO’s director general for pandemic flu, said on a conference call with reporters today. “The pandemic is a global event.”
Public-health officials will consult with virologists and epidemiologists and look at forecasts for whether the virus might surge again in late winter or early spring before declaring an end to the pandemic, he said, without saying when that might be. In June, the United Nations health agency in Geneva declared the first flu pandemic in 40 years.
The rate of infection also remains high in the Czech Republic, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, Fukuda said. The spread of the virus, dubbed swine flu, in North America has “clearly peaked” and is declining, he said.
The peak in North America happened “extraordinarily early” in the flu season, and there may be another wave in late winter or early spring, Fukuda said.
A pandemic is an unexpected outbreak of a new contagious disease that spreads from person to person across multiple borders. In such cases, almost no one has natural immunity. In most cases, the H1N1 virus causes little more than a fever and cough.
The WHO has received donations of 180 million doses of pandemic flu vaccine for poor countries, and hasn’t started distributing them yet, Fukuda said. Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Mongolia will be the first countries to get the shots, he said.
Fukuda declined to comment on the prospect that some countries may seek to return unused flu vaccine to manufacturers. Nations may want to keep vaccine for future use, he said. The H1N1 strain will circulate in the Northern Hemisphere fall next year and again after that, he said.
More than 10,000 people have died from swine flu globally since the outbreak began in April, though the figure underestimates the death toll because it only counts laboratory- confirmed cases, Fukuda said. Epidemics of seasonal influenza kill as many as 500,000 people annually, according to WHO statistics.
Officials in the U.K. said last week that the country may end up with a surplus of swine flu vaccine after its immunization campaign is concluded, and they are considering whether to expand coverage, donate excess supply, or cancel contracts with manufacturers. Safety concerns and lower-than- expected death rates from pandemic influenza have damped demand for vaccine in some European countries, health experts said. Governments and vaccine manufacturers say the shots are safe.
To contact the reporter on this story: Dermot Doherty in Geneva at firstname.lastname@example.org