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WHO Braces For Flu Pandemic


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Swine flu, already established in North America and Europe, has now come to the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. Today, New Zealand and Israel became the latest countries to confirm cases of the virus. Other affected countries are Mexico, the United States, Canada, Spain and Scotland. The announcement by New Zealand and Israel came one day after the World Health Organization said the world has moved a significant step closer to a global flu pandemic. The WHO said the virus has proved itself capable of passing readily from person to person, and that's something the Asian bird flu virus was never able to do. NPR's Richard Knox reports.


RICHARD KNOX: Twice in two days, the WHO convened an emergency committee to sift the rapidly changing facts about swine flu. After deliberating for four hours, the agency's top flu expert, Keiji Fukuda, told reporters that the world is now at phase four on the agency's six-step scale toward a flu pandemic.

Dr. KEIJI FUKUDA (Flu Expert, World Health Organization): We think that we have taken a step in that direction, but a pandemic is not considered inevitable.

KNOX: The new virus has only been recognized for a couple of weeks, but it's already shown itself capable of passing readily between people. Nobody knows how many infections each infected person touches off. That's a crucial question. But the WHO has concluded that this virus can infect communities, not just individuals. The WHO reached another disturbing conclusion. In essence, it says it's already too late to keep this virus confined to one or a few places.

Dr. FUKUDA: Really, this virus is too widespread to make containment a feasible consideration.

KNOX: In Mexico, the number of serious cases of lung disease that might be due to swine flu are said to number nearly 2,000; deaths, more than 150. Within the U.S., confirmed cases have been identified in California, Texas, Kansas, Ohio and New York. Fukuda says the WHO strongly recommends that nations not try to shut themselves off from swine flu.


Dr. FUKUDA: Either closing borders or restricting travel would really have very little effect, if any effect at all, at stopping the movement of this virus.

KNOX: The U.S. government agrees, though it's advising people against nonessential travel to Mexico. Officials have begun what's called passive surveillance at the border, looking for signs of illness among people entering the country. Dr. Richard Besser, the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says the daily tally of swine flu cases is less important than the pattern of infection.

Dr. RICHARD BESSER (Acting Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): Today, I'll give you the numbers as we have them, but ask you to focus a little less on the specific numbers and more what it tells us.

KNOX: What it tells us, in many cases, is that a traveler can pick up the new virus on a spring trip to Mexico, bring it home, and pass it on to someone else. That's three steps of transmission. Whether the virus is capable of longer chains is an urgent unknown. Everything hinges on that question, and on a better understanding of how capable this virus is of causing serious illness and death. Fukuda of the WHO says the world should be prepared for anything.

Dr. FUKUDA: It is possible that we could stay in phase four for quite a long time. It is possible that as the situation evolves over the next few days, it could evolve to the point where that it appears that we have moved into phase five.

KNOX: By phase five, the WHO means that a new flu virus is spreading internationally, something that's clearly already happening, but nobody knows yet on what scale. The WHO says phase five is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent, and time is growing short. But it's also possible, officials say, that the number of swine flu cases could decline in the coming weeks. Besser of the CDC says that wouldn't necessarily mean the swine flu threat has gone away.

Dr. BESSER: Often in outbreaks of influenza, you'll see a decline in the number of cases because it's the end of flu season. And we can't rest too comfortably on that because sometimes those come back again in the fall when flu season comes back.

KNOX: So for now, the world is committed to a watching and waiting game.

Richard Knox, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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