Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization

WHO Continues Monitoring H1N1 Spread, Says World is Prepared

At the end of last week, the World Health Organization said it had no immediate plans to raise the pandemic alert to level 6 from 5, though the agency continues to closely monitor the spread of the virus and has confirmed more than 2,300 cases of swine flu in more than 24 countries worldwide.

If it comes to raising the alert level, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan will be the one to make the call. On Friday, she addressed via videoconference a special meeting of the ASEAN+3 health ministers in Bangkok and noted that, largely because of the work the ministers have devoted to tracking the H5N1 (bird flu) virus for the past five years, today's H1N1 (swine flu) threat is more sustainable.

"H5N1 taught the world to expect a pandemic, and to plan for this event," Chan said. "The world is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history, thanks, in part, to your vigilance and diligence. Years of alert and expectation mean that most countries now have preparedness plans. Vaccine manufacturing capacity has increased sharply. Large stocks of antiviral drugs have been produced and procured. Right now, treatment courses from the WHO stockpile are being shipped to more than 70 countries in the developing world. We are, right now, gaining experience in the use of non-medical interventions, such as social distancing, to delay spread of the H1N1 virus. WHO and its regional offices have tested their alert and response plans, also in operational exercises. We are prepared."

Acknowledging that she will be the official who will raise the alert level if it needs raising, Chan cautioned global leaders to, in effect, stay calm and respond to the disease--and misperceptions about the disease--by focusing on the facts.

"This is a time of great uncertainty for all countries, and great pressure on ministers and ministries of health," she said. "The only certain thing that can be said about influenza viruses is that their behavior is entirely unpredictable. No one can say how the current situation will evolve. Countries will, quite rightly, want to do everything possible to prevent the arrival of the virus or, once in a country, to delay its further spread and thus flatten the epidemiological peak.

"At the same time, it is important for countries to refrain from introducing economically and socially disruptive measures that lack solid scientific backing and bring no clear public health benefit. The rational use of travel- and trade-related measures is always wise. It is all the more wise at a time of severe economic downturn."

Chan urged the health ministers to continue monitoring the H5N1 virus during the current threat from H1N1. "[H5N1] is endemic in poultry in parts of the region. We have no idea how H5N1 will behave under the pressure of a pandemic," Chan said, adding that the avian flu virus "has conditioned the public to equate an influenza pandemic with very severe disease and high mortality. Such a disease pattern is by no means inevitable during a pandemic. On the contrary, it is exceptional."

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