July 17, 2009

WHO: Swine Flu Spreading Too Quickly To Track

Officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday that the H1N1 flu pandemic was the fastest-moving pandemic ever and that counting every case would now be pointless, Reuters reported.

The United Nations agency declared swine flu a pandemic on June 11.

However, national health authorities will now only be required to report clusters of severe cases or deaths caused by the new virus, or unusual clinical patterns.

The WHO said in a statement: "The 2009 influenza pandemic has spread internationally with unprecedented speed. In past pandemics, influenza viruses have needed more than six months to spread as widely as the new H1N1 virus has spread in less than six weeks."

The 193 member-state agency said that as swine flu spreads, it has become nearly impossible for health authorities and laboratories to keep count of individual cases, which have mostly been mild.

Antivirals such as Roche Holding's Tamiflu or GlaxoSmithKline's Relenza can effectively treat the new flu strain, but many patients even recover without medical treatment.

At least a million people in the United States alone are infected with H1N1, and the WHO says the pandemic is unstoppable.

WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said that it was very much agreed that trying to register and report every single case of swine flu was a huge waste of resources.

The WHO said such tracking has limited authorities' capacity to investigate serious cases and is no longer essential to monitor the level or nature of the risk posed by the virus.

But the agency urged all countries to continue closely monitoring unusual clusters of severe or fatal infections from the pandemic virus, clusters of respiratory illness requiring hospitalization or unexplained or unusual clinical patterns.

"Signals to be vigilant for include spikes in rates of absenteeism from schools or workplaces, or a more severe disease pattern, as suggested by, for example, a surge in emergency department visits," it said.

British Health Minister Andy Burnham said this month the government was projecting more than 100,000 new cases a day of the flu in the country by the end of August, as some 29 people had died to date after contracting the virus.

The WHO's numbers of confirmed cases for all countries, which stood at 94,512 cases with 429 deaths as of its last update on July 6, will no longer be updated with global incidences.

It will now issue regular updates on the situation in newly affected countries, which should report the first confirmed cases, weekly figures and epidemiological details.

But WHO officials said countries should still test a limited number of virus samples weekly to confirm that disease is actually due to the pandemic virus and to monitor any virological changes that may be important for the development of vaccines.

WHO vaccine chief Marie-Paule Kieny told Reuters that at least 50 governments have placed orders for vaccines against the new H1N1 strain or are negotiating with drug makers.

The agency said cases of seasonal influenza is linked to 250,000 to 500,000 deaths a year globally, but it does not report official figures.


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