GENEVA – The World Health Organization declared a swine flu pandemic Thursday — the first global flu epidemic in 41 years — as infections in the United States, Europe, Australia, South America and elsewhere climbed to nearly 30,000 cases.
The long-awaited pandemic announcement is scientific confirmation that a new flu virus has emerged and is quickly circling the globe. WHO will now ask drugmakers to speed up production of a swine flu vaccine. The declaration will also prompt governments to devote more money toward efforts to contain the virus.
WHO chief Dr. Margaret Chan made the announcement Thursday after the U.N. agency held an emergency meeting with flu experts. Chan said she was moving the world to phase 6 — the agency's highest alert level — which means a pandemic, or global epidemic, is under way.
"The world is moving into the early days of its first influenza pandemic in the 21st century," Chan told reporters. "The (swine flu) virus is now unstoppable."
On Thursday, WHO said 74 countries had reported 28,774 cases of swine flu, including 144 deaths. Chan described the virus as "moderate." According to WHO's pandemic criteria, a global outbreak has begun when a new flu virus begins spreading in two world regions.
The agency has stressed that most cases are mild and require no treatment, but the fear is that a rash of new infections could overwhelm hospitals and health authorities — especially in poorer countries.
Still, about half of the people who have died from swine flu were previously young and healthy — people who are not usually susceptible to flu. Swine flu is also crowding out regular flu viruses. Both features are typical of pandemic flu viruses.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Despite the alarming sound of all the developments and spread of the H1N1 virus, there is no need to become alarmed -- yet. Bear in mind that thus far, the H1N1 flu has affected far fewer people than seasonal flu does every year. It has also killed far fewer people than are killed by seasonal flu every year. The swine flu is potentially capable of becoming a big problem and what the Phase 6 declaration says is that the virus has spread throughout the world in a way that qualifies it as a pandemic, increasing the potential for it to become a major problem. But as yet it is still not a major problem.
When viewed alongside the annual cases and deaths from flu that occur every year, the H1N1 pandemic is just a small blip in the statistics. Phase 6 means that H1N1 strain, which is a more dangerous strain than seasonal flu, has demonstrated its ability to spread throughout the world's population, signifying the very real potential for it to become a big problem. It's a warning. It means that countries and their health care systems need to prepare themselves for the possibility of having to handle a large number (millions) of cases of this flu.