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WHO declares swine flu pandemic underway

Zone default image Alert level raised to phase 6

Yesterday evening the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the swine flu pandemic alert level from phase 5 to 6.

A phase 6 pandemic alert level means that the new H1N1 influenza virus is causing sustained outbreaks of flu in communities in at least two different WHO regions, and a global pandemic is now under way.

The WHO made clear the change in alert level was linked to the geographical spread of the virus, and not to disease severity.

According to latest figures released by the WHO, a total of 30,000 people in 74 countries worldwide have now been infected with the influenza A (H1N1) virus, with 145 deaths.

It's highly likely these figures underestimate the spread of disease, as the vast majority of cases of H1N1 flu have been reported from countries with established country-wide disease surveillance centres.

To date the majority of confirmed flu cases have occurred in the USA (13,217), Canada (2,978) and Mexico (6,241).

Outside the Americas the highest number of confirmed cases have occurred Chile (1,694) and Australia (1,307), both in the southern hemisphere where the influenza season is just beginning.

As of yesterday European influenza cases totalled 1,565, with over half in the UK. However, even pandemic flu slows down in our summer months, and it's expected that UK and other European countries will experience a second wave of cases in the autumn and winter months.

What we can expect

Seasonal flu which occurs in the winter months is caused by circulating influenza viruses each year. Through time, many people have developed immunity, and so the virus spread is limited.

Swine flu is caused by a new strain of influenza virus, which means there is little, if any, existing immunity to the virus within a population. This allows the new H1N1 flu virus to spread unchecked worldwide, causing a pandemic.

According to WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan:

  • Disease caused by the virus is usually moderate, as the vast majority of patients infected have only mild symptoms
  • Younger people are more at risk of catching the disease. So far most cases have occurred in the under 25s (in contrast to seasonal flu where older people are most at risk)
  • Severe illness occurs in about 2 per cent of cases, which can progress to life-threatening pneumonia
  • Up to a half of the severe and fatal cases have occurred in young and healthy individuals . Many severe cases have occurred in people with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease
  • Pregnant women may be at a higher risk of complications

However, she also stressed that the pandemic was at a very early stage and could quickly change as she warned:

"The virus writes the rules and this one, like all influenza viruses, can change the rules, without rhyme or reason, at any time"

Symptoms of influenza

Swine flu symptoms are similar to those of human seasonal influenza infection. These include

  • Headache
  • Severe weakness and fatigue
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Aching muscles and joint pain
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose

What you can do protect yourself and family

"Coughs and sneezes spread diseases"

How true. All flu viruses are passed on from person to person through the air. It’s carried by droplets or aerosols produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

You can also catch it through touching a surface or person contaminated with the virus, then touching your own face. Good hygiene is one way to reduce your risk:

  • Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, Use a tissue where possible
  • Throw the tissue in the bin after you use it. Don’t leave it lying around
  • Maintain good basic hygiene. Wash hands frequently with soap and water to stop the virus spreading from hands to face, or to other people
  • Clean hard surfaces (e.g door handles) regularly using normal cleaning products
  • Ensure your children follow this advice

This article was published on Fri 12 June 2009

Image © Fotolia

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