The World Health Organization says antiviral medicines and antibiotics used in a timely manner can help save the lives of people who are sick with the H1N1 influenza.  The WHO issued new guidelines Thursday on the clinical treatment of people who contract the swine flu.

With the start of the influenza season in the Northern Hemisphere, there has been an upsurge in influenza across Europe and Asia.

The World Health Organization says clinics in some countries are overwhelmed with patients.  It says one way to save lives and ease the burden on clinics is to provide early treatment to prevent H1N1 from developing into a severe disease.

WHO Medical Officer in the Clinical Aspects of Influenza, Nikki Shindo, says the agency has convincing evidence that antiviral medicines, such as Tamiflu, can prevent severe cases of H1N1.

She says the WHO has three updated recommendations for countries where the virus is circulating.

"Firstly, people in at-risk groups need to be treated with antiviral medicine as soon as possible when they have flu symptoms," said Nikki Shindo. "This includes pregnant women, children under two years old and people with underlying conditions, such as respiratory problems.  Secondly, people who are not from high-risk groups, but who have persistent or rapidly worsening symptoms should also be treated with antivirals."

These symptoms, she says, include difficulty in breathing and a high fever that lasts more than three days.  Dr. Shindo says the third recommendation is that people who have developed pneumonia should be given antivirals and antibiotics because bacterial infections can develop.

She says the WHO is not recommending antiviral treatment for people who are not at high risk and are experiencing only a mild illness.  But she urges vigilance.

"The pandemic virus can cause very severe pneumonia even in healthy young people, though rather minor in proportion," she said. "And the virus can take lives within a week.  The window of opportunity is very narrow to reverse the progression of the disease.  The medicine needs to be administered before the virus destroys the lungs." 

Dr. Shindo says the H1N1 virus is amazingly stable.  She notes that the disease pattern has not changed.  Because of this, she says the WHO believes it can confidently say that early antiviral use can make a difference in terms of severe illness and death.