* WHO chief Margaret Chan raises pandemic alert level to 5
* Shift encourages drug stockpiling, vaccine development
(Adds quotes from Chan and Fukuda)
By Laura MacInnis and Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, April 29 The World Health Organisation
on Wednesday raised the global flu alert level to 5, the second
highest phase that indicates "a pandemic is imminent".
"I have decided to raise the level of influenza pandemic
alert from phase 4 to phase 5," WHO Director-General Margaret
Chan told a news briefing about the swine flu outbreak that has
been deadly in Mexico and the United States and which has caused
milder symptoms elsewhere.
"The world is better prepared for an influenza pandemic
than at any time in history," Chan said. "For the first time in
history we can track the pandemic in real time."
In Mexico up to 159 people have died and about 1,300 more
are being tested. In the United States a 22-month-old boy has
died in Texas while on a visit from Mexico.
According to the WHO's pandemic flu response guidelines, a
Phase 5 alert is called when there is sustained human-to-human
spread of the virus in at least two countries in one region.
"While most countries will not be affected at this stage,
the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is
imminent and that the time to finalise the organisation,
communication and implementation of the planned mitigation
measures is short," the document reads.
Chan's move followed intensive consultations with experts
and analysis of the spreading virus within and from Mexico.
The change in level puts governments on alert about the need
to stockpile antiviral drugs such as Roche Holding AG ROG.VX's
Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK.L) Relenza, and accelerates
pharmaceutical industry efforts to create a vaccine to fight the
swine flu strain.
The higher alert also signals the virus is unlikely to fade
away, and could pose a prolonged public health threat.
"It is something here to stay. Now the question is at what
level it will be circulating and how easily it is transmitted,"
one public health expert said before the official announcement.
Keiji Fukuda, WHO acting assistant director-general, said
swine flu was spreading in a "convincing" way in both Mexico and
the United States and would likely permeate other countries and
regions in a similar way.
"By definition a pandemic is when we get to Phase 6 but we
think we are in the process of moving towards there," he told
the late evening press conference at the WHO headquarters.
On Monday evening, Chan convened a meeting of the WHO's
emergency committee to assess the pandemic alert level which had
previously been at 3 on the six-stage scale.
That panel recommended an increase to 4, which formally
indicated the infection could spread between humans to cause
Chan said because all flu viruses were unpredictable, the
current swine flu strain needs to be closely watched in case it
mutates into a more dangerous strain -- or a milder one.
"The important point for us now to continue to maintain our
vigilance and track its movement," she said.
The WHO is not recommending travel restrictions, border
closures, or any limitation on the movement of people, goods or
services as a result of the outbreak.
Chan also stressed there was no related danger from eating
properly-cooked pork. She recommended good hygiene measures such
as hand-washing to prevent infection from flu and said it was
important "to maintain a level of calm".
(For a NEWSMAKER on Margaret Chan, click on [LS818002])
(For more Reuters stories on swine flu, click on [nFLU])
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