The World Health Organization formally declared on Thursday that the worldwide outbreak of the H1N1 virus known as “swine flu” has become a Phase 6 pandemic, whose spread is officially considered unstoppable.
It is the first time in 41 years the United Nations-sponsored organization has made such an announcement.
Israel’s Health Ministry immediately issued a statement reminding the public that the upgraded Phase 6 alert did not refer to the severity of the illness itself, but rather to the rapidity and scope of its spread around the world.
The ministry noted that Israel has already made Level Six preparations, including isolating people with symptoms of the illness in their own homes instead of in hospitals.
Within days of the initial outbreak of the virus, the ministry had established a full time clinic at Ben Gurion International Airport to screen incoming travelers who exhibit symptoms of the virus. Doctors were also stationed at border crossings around the country.
WHO director Dr. Margaret Chan announced the move to Phase 6 worldwide alert after sending a notice to member countries.
She met with journalists following an emergency meeting with flu experts held at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva.
“The world is moving into the early days of its first influenza pandemic in the 21st century,” she told reporters, adding that the agency was moving its global alert to Phase 6, the highest level.
Chan added that experts at the meeting agreed unanimously that the swine flu was spreading more rapidly, and farther, than was being reported, particularly in Europe.
The virus is presently sweeping through the continent nation of Australia, where more than 1,300 cases were officially reported Thursday, and Chile, where nearly 1,700 cases were confirmed. Both countries are located in the southern hemisphere, where the ordinary flu season is in full swing.
WHO Assistant Director General Keiji Fukuda described the pandemic level as “moderate.” However, this time people who are not usually susceptible to the flu are also being infected, and the H1N1 virus is overtaking other, ordinary strains. Both events are common during pandemic flu outbreaks.
In addition, although normally in the northern hemisphere the flu season does not begin until the autumn months, the virus continues to spread throughout the world, indicating H1N1 is a particularly virulent strain.
According to the latest WHO statistics, the pandemic has now spread to 74 countries, infecting 28,774 people, since the first case was diagnosed in Mexico in late April. At least 141 people have died of the virus worldwide – a relatively small number, compared to the nearly 500,000 people who die from ordinary flu each year.
However, Chan warned, “Countries where outbreaks appear to have peaked should prepare for a second wave of infection.” Countries that have not yet seen cases of the swine flu, or have only had limited cases, she added, should prepare for it. “The virus is not stoppable,” she said. “I would advise them to maintain vigilance, enhance surveillance and be prepared for the arrival of the novel H1N1 in their country.”
Nonetheless, the agency has not yet issued restrictions on travel or border closures.
Nine new cases of the virus were diagnosed this week in Israel, including five which were contracted locally. Four others were diagnosed in people who became infected during visits to the United States.
Three people were admitted to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. The other six patients are being treated in Jerusalem’s Shaarei Tzedek Medical Center.
At least 77 cases of the H1N1 virus have been confirmed in Israel. Most people have had mild symptoms and almost all have since recovered completely.
Such has not been the case in the U.S., however, hardest hit by the pandemic. At least 13,217 people have been infected and 27 have died of the virus in that country.
Three deaths were reported Thursday in New York City, including a baby, a teenager and an unidentified adult in his or her 30s, bringing the city’s swine flu death toll to eight.