The World Health Organization is expected to declare the H1N1 Swine Flu
a pandemic, following an emergency meeting of health officials from
around the world. This will be the first declaration of a global flu
pandemic in more than 40 years. WHO estimates nearly 28,000 cases,
including 141 deaths have been reported in 74 countries.
The World Health Organization says there has been sustained community transmission in countries outside of North America, and this means the definition of a pandemic has been met.
But the World Health Organization is quick to stress a pandemic has to do with the geographic spread of the disease and not with its severity.
Since the H1N1 virus was first detected in Mexico and the United States in April, it has spread to 74 countries. The jump in the number of cases has been especially dramatic in Australia, where there has been a four-fold increase in a week to more than 1,200 cases.
Several countries are taking drastic action in an effort to prevent the H1N1 virus from taking hold. For example, Hong Kong has decided to close its schools after confirming the first cluster of cases.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang says the action was prompted after confirmation that 12 students in a local school, St. Paul, were infected. He says the source of the infection is unknown so that indicates all cases are indigenous.
"All kindergartens, primary schools, childcare centers and special schools will suspend classes for 14 days from tomorrow. The education bureau will inform parents through the schools. The bureau and the department of health will monitor developments closely every day," he said.
The World Health Organization has held off declaring a pandemic because it feared this could trigger panic around the world. And, indeed panic has gripped several countries.
For example, Argentina reports emergency health services collapsed this week because of the flood of people who swarmed into hospitals fearing they had swine flu. Last month, a group of Argentineans stoned a bus of tourists from Chile because they thought one of the passengers had the virus.
By raising its international alert level from phase five to phase six, the World Health Organization will be signaling that a pandemic is under way.
WHO officials are eager to calm fears. They say that raising the level to phase six does not mean the situation is worsening. They note the virus is very mild and has not killed many people. Since it has not mutated, the World Health Organization says it is not becoming more deadly.
The World Health Organization says a pandemic announcement is important because it will trigger drug makers to speed up the production of a swine flu vaccine, and will likely cause governments to spend more money to contain the virus.