Officials in Chile say a 37-year-old man has died after contracting the A-H1NI swine flu virus, in what is South America's first death from the new flu strain.

Officials said Tuesday that the man, identified as Fernando Vera, died early Monda) in the city of Puerto Montt, about 1,000 kilometers south of the capital, Santiago.  He is reported to have suffered respiratory failure.

Chile has 313 confirmed swine flu cases, more than any other country in South America.  

Before the Chilean death was announced, the World Health Organization had put the global death toll from the flu strain at 117.  The WHO also said it is closer to declaring the swine flu outbreak a pandemic as the infection appears to be taking hold outside North America.

WHO's assistant director-general, Keiji Fukuda, Tuesday said a number of countries appear to be making the transition from travel-related cases to sustained patterns of infection in local communities.

WHO has said previously it needs to see clear evidence of sustained community transmission of the virus from person to person in at least two regions of the world before it raises its alert to the Phase six pandemic stage.

The alert level is currently at Phase five.  The organization says 64 countries have officially reported nearly 19,000 flu cases.  Fukuda has said a pandemic has nothing to do with the severity of the disease, but rather with its geographic spread.

Most of the swine flu cases have been reported in Canada, Mexico and the United States.  Mexico has had the most swine flu deaths and is now reporting 103 fatalities.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.