August 10, 2010

WHO: H1N1 Pandemic Is Officially Over

The swine flu pandemic was officially declared to be over on Tuesday by the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the organization's emergency committee of top flu experts told her that the pandemic had "largely run its course" and the world is no longer at a phase six influenza alert level.

"I fully agree with the committee's advice," Chan told reporters in a telephone briefing from her native Hong Kong.

She said that the virus has now entered the "post-pandemic" phase, which means that disease actively around the world has returned to levels usually seen for seasonal influenza.

However, Chan said that even though hospitalizations and deaths have dropped, countries should still keep a watchful eye for unusual patterns of infection and mutations.

"It is likely that the virus will continue to cause serious disease in younger age groups," she said, urging high-risk groups such as pregnant women to continue seeking vaccination.

At least 18,449 people around the world have died from the A(H1N1) strain since April 2009.  WHO said last week that the more accurate number is probably higher, but the organization's flu chief, Keiji Fukuda, said a final number will not be available for a few months.

Lab-confirmed deaths globally increased by only 300 in the past two months, and many countries have long since closed the chapter on swine flu.

European and North American governments started to dump vaccines earlier this year after finding their stocks were full of expired supplies.

Health authorities in Britain shut down their pandemic flu hot line in February and canceled vaccine orders by a third back in April as the strain was starting to look less serious.

Authorities in Germany are meeting later this week to discuss who is going to pick up the bill for the 34 million doses of vaccines.

The French Senate published a report last month that criticized the WHO's handling of the pandemic, saying it was an "overestimation" of the risk and insufficient transparency about links between WHO experts and the pharmaceutical industry.

Polls released in January showed that 70 percent of the French population thought the government overestimated the danger of the H1N1 virus.  The government purchased 94 million doses of vaccine, but canceled half of the initial order at the start of the year.

WHO chief Chan said that declaring the swine flu as pandemic was the right decision, based on the internationally agreed rules that existed at the time.

"We have been aided by pure good luck," she said, adding that if the virus had mutated then the death rate could have been much higher.

However, she said that changes may be made to the way WHO defines pandemics.

"We need to review the phases, including the severity," she said.

Professor Angus Nicoll, the flu program director at the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, told The Associated Press that the decision to declare the pandemic as being over was consistent with the Stockholm-based body's recent findings.

Nicoll said that while flu activity in the northern hemisphere is seasonally low, monitoring in southern hemisphere countries shows that few people are falling seriously ill from the H1N1 strain.

He said that local spikes in flu deaths are likely due to better surveillance.

Nicoll said that health officials around the world should prepare for a new type of seasonal flu to appear in the near future that will combine elements of the swine flu, the older A(H3N2) strain and several lesser strains.

"It looks sort of middle of the road at the moment," he said.


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