WHO declares swine flu pandemic over

August 11th, 2010 - 12:39 am ICT by IANS  

Geneva, Aug 10 (DPA) The World Health Organisation Tuesday officially declared the swine flu pandemic over, 14 months after it issued the highest influenza alert level for the disease.
“The new H1N1 virus has largely run its course,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said in a teleconference. “We are now moving into the post-pandemic period.”

Since June 2009, the WHO has held steady at a Phase 6 alert - the highest in the agency’s tracking system - owing to the spread of the influenza virus to most corners of the world and concerns over a mutation to more lethal variation.

However, the health agency said Chan was now able to relax the caution level based on expert advice from the Emergency Committee, a panel of 15 international scientists.

The committee met for three hours before advising the WHO chief to announce the end of the pandemic, the agency said.

Out-of-season outbreaks are no longer being observed, according to the latest data, and the number of influenza cases has dropped to normal seasonal epidemic levels.

Two months ago, while still maintaining that the pandemic was ongoing, the WHO said scientific information from laboratories indicated H1N1 was past its peak activity.

H1N1 emerged in Mexico and the United States in March 2009, but soon spread and in June last year was declared the first global pandemic in decades.

The virus killed at least 18,449 people and affected more than 200 countries and territories, according to WHO figures. It also created widespread panic, with some countries initially banning pork products and restricting travel, despite warnings that these moves were not helpful.

However, Chan said the illness could have been much worse.

“This time around, we have been aided by pure good luck,” she said. “The virus did not mutate during the pandemic to a more lethal form.”

The H1N1 virus was now expected to take on the behaviour of a seasonal influenza virus and continue to circulate for some years to come.

“Even though we see the ending of the pandemic, the virus is still there,” said Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s top official on pandemic influenza.

“We recommend countries to continue monitoring it,” Fukuda noted.

The WHO warned that vulnerable groups, such as young children, will continue to remain prone to the illness in the post-pandemic period, and that those with underlying conditions could still fall victim.

“Groups identified during the pandemic as at higher risk of severe or fatal illness will probably remain at heightened risk, though hopefully the number of such cases will diminish,” Chan said in a speech.

An external review of the WHO and the swine flu pandemic is currently ongoing.

Chan has repeatedly said she wants a “a frank, critical, transparent, credible and independent review”, following sharp criticism of the WHO over its handling of the pandemic.

Many questions focused on the panic caused by the virus, which turned out to be mild in nature and infected fewer people than had been predicted by the WHO in early estimates.

WHO officials have said they needed to sound alarm bells when the virus started to spread, as no one could know at the time how the pandemic would turn out.

Additional worries were also noted about vaccines and the ties of some WHO advisers to the pharmaceutical industry.

A report by the scientists carrying out the external review, which is headed by Harvey Fineberg of Washington’s Institute of Medicine, is expected next May when the WHO convenes its annual general assembly of health ministers in Geneva.

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