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WHO Expects To Raise Flu Alert Level To Maximum

The World Health Organization (WHO) says the H1N1 swine flu virus continues to spread around the world, with the number of confirmed cases reaching 615, in 17 countries. WHO officials say they expect to raise their alert to the highest level. But experts say the spread of the flu is slowing down in Mexico, where the outbreak started.

The WHO's alert level for the virus remains at phase five of six, meaning a global outbreak is imminent. Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO Director of Global Alert and Response, says he expects that level to be raised. "At the present time, I would still propose that a pandemic is imminent because we are seeing the disease spread to other countries. We have not seen yet that sustained transmission outside one WHO region. At this point we have to expect that phase six will be reached. We have to hope that it is not," he said.

Dr. Ryan says good preparedness will help mitigate the effects of a pandemic. He also says the WHO has sent millions of treatments of the anti-flu drug Tamiflu to more than 70 developing countries, thanks to an earlier donation by a pharmaceutical company. "We have begun to dispatch 2.4 million doses of antiviral to 72 countries, including to Mexico, from stocks donated by Roche (pharmaceutical company) in 2005 and 2006," he said.

Authorities in Mexico say they say they are hopeful that the spread of the virus is slowing.

But Mexican and U.S. health officials warn that it is too early to determine whether the worst is over. Dr. Anne Schuchat, of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says the virus is still spreading in the United States. "While reports from Mexico appear to be encouraging, and some are cautiously optimistic, we cannot afford to let down our vigilance," she said.

U.S. President Barack Obama says his government is distributing drugs that can defeat the current strain of H1N1. He has also asked for more money for more medicine and equipment to fight the swine flu. "Out of an abundance of caution, I have also asked Congress for $1.5 billion, if it is needed, to purchase additional antivirals, emergency equipment, and the development of a vaccine that can prevent this virus as we prepare for the next flu season, in the fall," he said.

Mr. Obama talked by phone with Mexico President Felipe Calderon on Saturday, to coordinate their responses to the flu.