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US Preparing for Possible H1N1 Swine Flu Pandemic

A senior U.S. health official urges countries to adopt aggressive measures to contain the A-H1N1 swine flu virus. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius says everyone must cooperate in this activity because disease knows no borders.

A debate is raging at the World Health Assembly as to whether the WHO should raise its international influenza alert from phase five to phase six, which would trigger a global pandemic alert.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius says the United States believes WHO should have the flexibility to decide this matter.

She notes the United States already is taking measures consistent with phase six. So, raising the level of alert, she says, would not trigger any additional activity.

"The term pandemic is more about geography than severity and it is not an indication necessarily of the lethality of the disease," she said. "It is about how many regions in the world the disease is confirmed. At least at this point, the flu is presenting itself as relatively mild. We are cautiously optimistic that at this phase that that is what looks to be how it is being presented."

Sebelius notes there are many uncertainties surrounding this new virus. For instance, she says no one knows what will happen if the virus mutates. One scenario is that it could become more severe.

She says what happens next depends largely on what happens in the southern hemisphere as the H1N1 virus begins circulating during their flu season.

She notes, every year millions of people become ill and about 36,000 die from seasonal flu in the United States. And, this she says is occurring in a country where people have fairly good access to health treatment.

"What happens with that kind of flu outbreak in the developing nations, in refugee camps or where there is not access to sanitation and clean water," added Sebelius. "Or the underlying health conditions are already in very difficult shape. It could be quite severe. So, we will learn a lot from the southern hemisphere."

The U.S. health minister says it is premature to make decisions about producing an H1N1 vaccine because of all the uncertainty. Nevertheless, she says work on vaccine development is under way.

She says labs are testing various strains to see which might be most appropriate for a potential vaccine. And, these strains, she says are being shared with laboratories around the world.

She says the United States is accelerating the production of seasonal flu vaccine, so there would be more capacity to produce a swine flu vaccine should that become necessary.