World Health Organization raises swine flu alert level

New rating suggests pandemic imminent

The World Health Organization announced April 29 that is has raised the alert level for swine flu from Phase 4 to Phase 5, which suggests that a pandemic is imminent.

SWINE FLU IN NORTH AMERICA Shown are reported cases of swine flu as of April 29. Canadian numbers are from the Public Health Agency of Canada. Numbers for the United States are from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Numbers for Mexico are from the Mexico Health Ministry. Map: Science News

“That puts countries on high alert for influenza and pneumonia,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan during a press teleconference held from Geneva. Phase 6 denotes a pandemic.

WHO also reported in an earlier briefing April 29 that the spread of swine flu shows no signs of abating. “It’s possible, theoretically, that this could stop for unknown reasons. That’s probably unlikely at this point,” said Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director-general ad interim for health security and environment.

Fukuda’s remarks were borne out by numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. As of April 29, the CDC website reported that 10 U.S. states now report at least one infection, with a total of 91 cases — more than half in New York City. One case, in Texas, was fatal. The WHO noted that four Canadian provinces now report a total of 13 cases.

The Mexico Health Ministry April 29 also reported 159 deaths from swine flu, along with 2,498 suspected cases and 1,311 people currently hospitalized.

As scientists study this strain of flu, it is clear that the virus had its origin in pigs and then mutated. “Somehow it gained the ability to infect people and get transmitted among them,” Fukuda said. “It’s not clear what kind of mutations allowed that to happen.” In any case, scientists don’t think the current wave of infections is a result of direct transmission of the virus from pigs to people, he says. “This is a virus being transmitted from person to person.”

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