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WHO Chief Resists Calls to Quickly Declare Influenza Pandemic

The director-general of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, has closed the agency's annual conference with a warning that nations must remain vigilant and be prepared for a possible swine influenza A-H1N1 virus pandemic. She intimated that she would not be rushed into raising the international pandemic alert level from phase five to phase six. WHO reports at least 11,000 cases, including 86 deaths from 42 countries.

As the number of cases and deaths from the H1N1 Influenza A virus increases, countries are becoming noticeably more anxious. During the assembly many countries urged WHO's chief, Margaret Chan, to declare the so-called swine flu a pandemic.

In resisting these calls, she noted that phases 5 and 6 are virtually identical in demanding that countries take action to intensify their preparations for a possible pandemic. In her closing remarks, she promised the 193 member-states she would be flexible in her approach and acknowledged the new H1N1 virus was the world's most pressing health concern.

"For the first time in history, we are watching the conditions conducive for the start of a pandemic unfold before our eyes. On the one hand, this gives us an unprecedented opportunity. The world is alert and on guard as never before. On the other hand, this gives us a dilemma. Scientists, clinicians, and epidemiologists are capturing abundant signals," Chan said.

But, Chan said scientists do not yet know how to interpret these signals with certainty, and many questions about the evolution of the virus remain unanswered. Nevertheless, some things are known.

She said the virus is very contagious and it spreads quickly to new countries and within countries already affected. She called it a sneaky virus that is not easy to detect.

She said it is too early in the outbreak to make sweeping recommendations. She noted the new virus, thus far, has largely circulated in the Northern Hemisphere, where seasonal influenza is winding down.

"We need to watch the behavior of H1N1 very carefully as it encounters other influenza viruses circulating during the winter season in the Southern Hemisphere. The current winter season gives influenza viruses an opportunity to inter-mingle and possibly exchange their genetic material in unpredictable manners," she said.

The WHO Chief warned countries must expect to see more cases of severe and fatal infections. But, added she did not believe there would be any sudden and dramatic jump in severe illnesses and deaths.

She urged the developing countries to be on special alert for the onset of the disease as it begins circulating in the southern hemisphere. She said populations there are most vulnerable and preparations must be made for this.

She said the decision to declare an influenza pandemic is a responsibility and a duty that she takes very seriously.