GENEVA (Reuters) - The H1N1 flu pandemic may not be conquered until 2011 and continued vigilance is required against the virus which can still mutate, the head of the World Health Organization said on Tuesday.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan also warned that although countries have shored up their defenses against the first influenza pandemic in more than 40 years, they remain ill-prepared for mass outbreaks of the deadlier bird flu virus.
“It is still premature and too early for us to say we have come to an end of the pandemic influenza worldwide. It would be prudent and appropriate ... to continue to monitor the evolution of this pandemic for the next six to 12 months,” Chan told a year-end news conference.
“The one thing we need to guard against is a sense of complacency,” she added.
Countries including Britain, Canada and the United States have passed peaks of a second wave of H1N1, but outbreaks are intensifying in India, Egypt and elsewhere, according to Chan.
H1N1 has now spread to more than 200 countries, with nearly 12,000 deaths confirmed in laboratory, but it will probably take two years to establish the true death toll, she said.
Millions of people have been infected with the virus which emerged in April, most recovering without special treatment.
But young people, pregnant women and people with underlying health conditions such as heart or lung disease are more vulnerable and often require intensive care in hospital.
Influenza viruses are notoriously unpredictable and can mutate into more severe forms, according to the WHO chief.
Chan, who admitted she had not received her own H1N1 flu shot yet but would have it soon, said: “I am a bit more relaxed, but I will never let down my guard.”
Rich countries and drug companies have pledged to donate 190 million doses of H1N1 vaccine for use in some 90 developing countries, she said.
Her United Nations agency plans to start distributing the first doses in Azerbaijan and Mongolia in early January, to be followed by Afghanistan, she added.
On recalls of some H1N1 vaccine — by AstraZeneca’s MedImmune unit and Sanofi-Aventis SA — she said they were because they were not as potent as they should be but posed no risk.
“The recalls are not related to safety of vaccines,” she said, saying the issue had been dealt with in an “ethical way.”
Chan, noting the world’s financial crisis and weak health systems in some countries, said: “The fact that the long overdue influenza pandemic is so moderate in its impact is probably the best health news of the decade.”
But Chan, who fought avian flu and SARS while serving as
health director in her native Hong Kong, said the world was still not ready to combat a pandemic of the H5N1 bird flu virus, noting it was “more toxic and deadly.”
“No, the world is not ready for a pandemic to be caused by H5N1,” she said.
Editing by Charles Dick