* WHO committee to decide in a few weeks if H1N1 peaked
* Concerns about southern hemisphere winter, West Africa
(adds quotes, details)
By Jonathan Lynn
GENEVA, Feb 24 Health experts will review the
status of the H1N1 pandemic in a few weeks to decide whether it
has peaked but it is already clear that it is less severe than
previous outbreaks, the World Health Organisation said.
The WHO's emergency committee decided on Tuesday that it was
premature to declare the pandemic, which was declared in June
and was the first in more than 40 years, was past its worst.
The 15 members of the body that makes confidential
recommendations to WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan
deliberated for two hours but decided there were too many
uncertainties about how the pandemic was behaving, even if it
appeared to be subsiding in North America and Europe.
Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's top influenza expert, told
reporters on Wednesday that rising levels of infection in West
Africa and the risk posed by the winter months in the southern
hemisphere were the dominating concerns of the committee.
"We have some reason to be concerned about what may develop
as half of the world goes into its winter months," Fukuda said.
He said the United Nations health agency had confirmed
reports of rising infection in Senegal and Mauritania, and was
checking to see whether the flu virus was spreading in other
parts of West Africa.
Fukuda urged people and governments not to let their guard
down even though the current swine flu outbreak has not been as
harsh as pandemics that killed millions over the past century.
"This pandemic appears to be on the less severe side of the
spectrum of pandemics that we have seen in the 20th century," he
OVER 16,000 CONFIRMED DEATHS
So far the WHO has confirmed 16,226 deaths attributable to
the H1N1 pandemic virus, but the real death toll -- which will
take a year or two to ascertain -- will be much higher, as many
victims have so far not been diagnosed with the flu strain.
People should continue to seek vaccination against the
pandemic, which is dangerous for young adults, especially those
with chronic health conditions, and pregnant women, in contrast
to seasonal strains where the elderly are vulnerable, he said.
Fukuda said over 300 million people have now been vaccinated
against pandemic influenza, and the shots, which have an
excellent safety record, have proved 70-75 percent effective.
The pandemic sparked a race to develop new vaccines by drug
makers such as GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L) and Sanofi-Aventis
(SASY.PA) but many people have not taken the vaccine as the
outbreak has turned out to be fairly mild.
A decision by the WHO emergency committee that the pandemic
has entered a "post-peak" phase will indicate to governments and
health authorities that the virus, while still a global
pandemic, is in a transition to a more normal state of affairs
where it circulates as seasonal influenza.
That would enable authorities to revise their emergency
(For WHO statement go to link.reuters.com/zeh62j )
(Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London; Editing by