GENEVA Outbreaks of swine flu in Mexico and the United States have the potential to cause a worldwide pandemic but it is too early to say whether they will, the head of the World Health Organization said on Saturday.
WHO director-general Margaret Chan urged health authorities in all countries to be on high alert for unusual patterns of disease and any rise in severe flu or pneumonia cases.
"This is clearly an animal strain of the H1N1 virus and it has pandemic potential because it is infecting people," Chan said on a teleconference.
"However, we cannot say on the basis of currently available laboratory, epidemiological, and clinical evidence whether or not it will indeed cause a pandemic."
The United Nations health agency has warned for several years that a new virus strain could spark a human influenza pandemic that could sweep around the globe and kill millions.
The new H1N1 flu strain -- a mixture of swine, human and avian flu viruses which has killed up to 68 people among 1,004 suspected cases in Mexico and infected eight in the United States -- is still poorly understood and the situation is evolving quickly, Chan said.
An emergency committee of experts met with Chan on Saturday but did not take any decisions on the outbreaks after hearing information from the U.S. and Mexican authorities, WHO spokeswoman Sari Setiogi said. She said a statement would be issued later.
The committee could recommend Chan to take temporary measures to protect health or change the WHO's pandemic alert level, currently 3 on a scale of 1 to 6.
There were currently no indications of similar outbreaks elsewhere in the world, Chan said.
"It would be prudent for health officials within countries to be alert to outbreaks of influenza-like illness or pneumonia, especially if these occur outside in months outside the usual peak influenza season," added Chan, a former health director of Hong Kong.
Health officials worldwide should also be alert to large incidences of severe or fatal flu-like illness in groups other than young children and the elderly, the ages usually at highest risk from normal seasonal flu, she said.
Most of the dead in Mexico were aged between 25 and 45.
WHO experts have been deployed in Mexico to help health authorities with disease surveillance, laboratory diagnosis and clinical management of cases.
The WHO stood ready with antiviral drugs to combat the outbreaks in Mexico. But authorities have a sizeable supply of Tamiflu, known generically as oseltamivir, and made by Switzerland's Roche Holding, which has proved effective against the new virus, according to the WHO.
"Influenza viruses are notoriously unpredictable and full of surprises, as we are seeing right now," Chan said.
"We need to know how the virus is spread, what is the transmission pattern and whether or not it is going to cause severe disease and in what age group," she said.
It was "too premature at this stage" for the WHO to announce any travel advisories, as better analysis of the cases and other clinical data was required, Chan said. But the agency's experts would address the issue of travel advisories.
"We do not yet have a complete picture of the epidemiology or the risk, including possible spread beyond the currently affected areas," Chan said.
"Nonetheless, in the assessment of WHO, this is a serious situation which must be watched very closely."
It was also too soon for the U.N. agency to advise drugmakers to switch to producing a new vaccine -- to be derived from the new virus -- from their traditional production of seasonal influenza vaccines, she said.
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(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)