GENEVA (Reuters) - The H1N1 flu virus is likely to keep spreading rapidly between people, within countries and across the globe, the head of the World Health Organization said on Monday.
U.S. health officials also expressed concern about who the new swine flu virus is infecting — mostly children, teens and young adults — and outbreaks in schools.
Ministers and experts began a meeting in Geneva to discuss how to fight the virus with vaccines and drugs, as well as what would trigger the WHO to declare a full pandemic.
“For the first time in humanity, we are seeing, or we may be seeing, pandemic influenza evolving in front of our eyes,” WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan told her U.N. agency’s World Health Assembly.
New York City recorded its first death from the virus and Chile reported two new cases, adding to its first two cases reported on Sunday. Japan also confirmed that 125 people, many of whom had not been abroad, had been infected with the new strain.
Tests confirmed the first case in Greece, a Greek man traveling from the United States, the Health Ministry said.
Forty countries have confirmed cases of the new strain. Almost all of the 74 dead were in Mexico, but mostly, people have had relatively mild symptoms.
Addressing the WHO’s annual congress, Tonga’s health minister said it was lucky the H1N1 strain had spread first to affluent countries such as the United States, Canada, and Japan.
“Somehow, somebody decided to start this epidemic in very rich countries ... This helped all of us,” said Health Minister Viliami Tangi. Poor countries lack the medical staff, laboratories, drug stockpiles, and vaccine-making capacity to deal with the outbreak in a sophisticated manner, he said.
Chan said H1N1 may pose a particular risk if it somehow mixed with the H5N1 avian flu virus, now entrenched in poultry in several countries.
“No one can say how this avian virus will behave when pressured by large numbers of people infected with the new H1N1 virus,” she said.
Egypt’s envoy noted there had been three new human cases of H5N1 in his country in the last week.
Dr Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said most of the 200 or so Americans hospitalized with the new swine flu strain were younger — as opposed to seasonal flu, which hits the elderly the hardest.
“That’s very unusual, to have so many people under 20 to require hospitalization, and some of them in (intensive care units),” Schuchat told reporters in a telephone briefing.
“We are now experiencing levels of influenza-like illness that are higher than usual for this time of year,” Schuchat added. “We are also seeing outbreaks in schools, which is extremely unusual for this time of year.”
New York City health officials said 16 schools were closed there due to outbreaks. Most of Japan’s new infections were among high school students in the western prefectures of Hyogo and Osaka who had not travelled abroad, the Health Ministry said.
But Canada lifted travel warnings about Mexico.
“With the H1N1 virus circulating within Canada, travel to Mexico is no longer a heightened risk factor for the spread of the virus,” Chief Public Health Officer Dr David Butler-Jones told a conference call with reporters.
WHO raised its global pandemic alert level last month to 5 on a 6-point scale.
WHO has said it is watching the situation in Japan closely, but it was not clear yet whether the outbreak, the largest outside the Americas, would trigger a move to level 6.
Under WHO rules, signs that the disease is spreading in a sustained way in a second region of the world would prompt a declaration that a full pandemic is under way. Other large clusters have been seen in Spain and Britain.
A WHO designation of a full pandemic would put countries on even higher alert about the flu strain and give more impetus to pharmaceutical efforts to fight it.
Chan and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will meet pharmaceutical executives on Tuesday to discuss their ability to make vaccines to fight the strain.
Delegates will seek an agreement on how samples of the virus should be handled and shared with pharmaceutical companies.
However, rich and poor countries remain at odds over whether the biological material can be patented. The meeting will also discuss poor countries’ needs for antiviral drugs like Roche and Gilead Sciences Inc’s Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline’s Relenza and any vaccines developed to confront the strain.
Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota and Stanley White in Tokyo, Chris Michaud in New York and Antonio de la Jara in Santiago; Stephanie Nebehay, Katie Reed and Jonathan Lynn in Geneva; Janet Guttsman in Toronto; Writing by Maggie Fox; Editing by Eric Beech