* Virus is causing moderate disease
* Phase 6 means spread is inevitable
* WHO urges countries to finish seasonal vaccine production
(Adds comments from U.S. officials, genetics study)
By Jonathan Lynn
GENEVA, June 11 The World Health Organization
declared an influenza pandemic on Thursday and advised
governments to prepare for a long-term battle against an
unstoppable new flu virus.
The United Nations agency raised its pandemic flu alert to
phase 6 on a six-point scale, indicating the first influenza
pandemic since 1968 is under way.
"With today's announcement, WHO moves from an emergency to
a longer-term response. Based on past experience, this pandemic
will be with us for some months, if not years, to come," WHO
Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said in a letter to staff, a
copy of which was obtained by Reuters.
People aged 30-50, pregnant women or people suffering from
chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes or obesity are at
highest risk, Chan told a news conference.
Countries from Australia to Chile and the United States are
reporting the new swine flu virus is "crowding out" seasonal
flu, becoming the predominant influenza strain, she said.
For now the virus was "pretty stable," but Chan warned that
it could still change into a more deadly form, perhaps mixing
with the H5N1 bird flu virus circulating widely in poultry.
"So it is incumbent on WHO and all members to stay vigilant
and alert for the next year or two or even beyond," she said.
There is also a risk the swine flu could mix with its
seasonal H1N1 cousin, which has developed resistance to the
main antiviral flu drug Tamiflu, made by Roche AG ROG.VX and
Gilead Sciences Inc (GILD.O), Dr. Anne Schuchat of the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told a separate
The United States has been operating on pandemic status for
weeks, with hundreds of thousands of cases and at least 1,000
hospitalizations, Schuchat said.
GUARDING AGAINST 'RASH' ACTIONS
The virus disproportionately makes younger people sick.
Some 57 percent of U.S. cases were among people aged 5 to 24,
and 41 percent of those hospitalized were in this younger age
H1N1 is active in all 50 states and there are so many cases
now that in some areas, patients with specific flu-like
symptoms -- a fever above 104 degrees F (40 degrees C), cough
or other respiratory symptoms -- are presumed to have the new
WHO reiterated its advice to its 193 member countries not
to close borders or impose travel restrictions to halt the
movement of people, goods and services, a call echoed by U.N.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. [ID:nN11183745]
"We must guard against rash and discriminatory actions such
as travel bans or trade restrictions," Ban told a news
conference at U.N. headquarters.
The move to phase 6 reflects the fact that the disease,
widely known as swine flu, is spreading geographically, but
does not indicate how virulent it is.
Widespread transmission of the virus in Australia,
signaling that it is entrenched in another region besides North
America, was one of the key triggers for moving to phase 6.
"We are satisfied that this virus is spreading to a number
of countries and it is not stoppable," Chan said.
"Moving to pandemic phase 6 level does not imply we will
see an increase in the number of deaths or very severe cases.
Quite on the contrary. Many people are having mild disease,
they recover without medicines in some cases and it is good
news," she said.
"Although the pandemic appears to have moderate severity in
comparatively well-off countries, it is prudent to anticipate a
bleaker picture as the virus spreads to areas with limited
resources, poor health care, and a high prevalence of
underlying medical problems," she added.
Canadian health officials said they were concerned about
reports of more severe symptoms in some aboriginal communities,
but said it was too soon to say for sure.
"To make conclusions based on a couple of communities that
this is somehow a disease that is worse in a particular ethnic
group. It's much too early to make any of those kinds of
conclusions or presumptions," said Dr. David Butler-Jones,
Canada's chief public health officer. [ID:nN11519995]
VACCINE DEVELOPMENT UNDERWAY
Chan said WHO would start distributing a further donation
of 5.65 million courses of Tamiflu from Roche. [ID:nWLA6461]
WHO recommended drugmakers stay on track to complete
production of seasonal influenza vaccine for the Northern
Hemisphere's next winter in the next two weeks. Each year,
normal flu kills up to 500,000 people and infects millions.
Work on developing an H1N1 vaccine is already under way at
leading companies, whose factories will be ready to switch to
making a pandemic shot in around two weeks' time, when normal
season flu vaccine production is complete. [ID:nLB16505]
Seasonal flu affects mainly the elderly and causes severe
illness in millions, so a premature switch in vaccine
production to cope with the new strain could put many people at
"So our recommendation is they need to finish the seasonal
vaccine and then move over," Chan said.
Chan said the Geneva-based agency would work with
regulatory authorities to help fast-track approval of new
pandemic vaccines that are safe and effective so that they can
be made available as soon as possible. In any case, the first
doses would only be available in September, she added.
A pandemic could cause enormous disruption to business as
workers stay home because they are sick or to look after family
members and authorities restrict gatherings of large numbers of
people or movement of people or goods.
World markets shrugged off the pandemic, as investors
focused on possible global economic recovery.
The strain, which emerged in April in Mexico and the United
States, has spread widely. There have been 28,774 infections
confirmed in 74 countries to date, including 144 deaths,
according to WHO's latest tally of laboratory-confirmed cases.
(For the full text of Chan's remarks at a press conference, go
(Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis in Geneva, Michael
Kahn in London, and Maggie Fox in Washington; Editing by Xavier