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WHO Urges Countries to Prepare for Possible Flu Pandemic


The World Health Organization is warning against complacency and urging countries to prepare for a possible pandemic from the Swine Flu A-H1N1 virus. The annual World Health Assembly got off to a vigorous start with a high-level consultation to assess the current global situation.

In an unusual move, this year's World Health Assembly has been shortened from nine to five days so health ministers can get home to deal with the swine flu crisis.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told representatives of 193 countries attending the high-level consultation they cannot afford to let down their guard in a world that is highly mobile and interdependent.

She said all governments must cooperate with each other. They must share information openly and coordinate their actions to prevent the new virus from taking hold.

She noted everyone is under pressure to make urgent far-reaching decisions in an atmosphere of considerable scientific uncertainty.

"We have lived for five long years under the threat of a pandemic caused by the lethal H5N1 avian influenza virus. This has left our world better prepared. but also very scared ... We need to warn the public when necessary, but reassure them whenever possible. This is a difficult balancing act," she said.

Latest WHO figures show 40 countries reporting nearly 9,000 cases, including more than 70 deaths from swine flu. Most infections are found in Mexico, the United States and Canada. Countries outside North America that are most heavily affected are Japan, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Acting Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Richard Besser, said the virus is spreading rapidly throughout the country. He said seasonal flu is still circulating in the United States, but the new virus now accounts for about half of all cases being seen.

"We have aggressively undertaken the steps toward vaccine development. We sent five different virus isolates to different labs around the world. These labs will help us evaluate which virus isolate would be the best candidate for a vaccine. We expect to have results by the end of the month," he said. "Our best analysis suggests that this novel H1N1 virus is likely to circulate worldwide, similar to other seasonal flu viruses. Because the virus is new, we expect more people to become infected and even if the virus is not highly virulent, more people will be susceptible. There will be more illness, more hospitalizations and more strain on essential services," he cautioned.

Panelists agree there is a false perception in many parts of the world that the swine flu H1N1 virus is winding down. They said the outbreak is not over and soon will be traveling to the southern Hemisphere. They said they will have to carefully monitor the impact of the virus on vulnerable populations in some of the poorest countries of the world.
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