Nations urge shift in swine flu effort
Worries about a worldwide panic
GENEVA - China, Britain, Japan, and other countries urged the World Health Organization yesterday to be very cautious about declaring the arrival of a swine flu pandemic, fearing that a premature announcement could cause worldwide panic and confusion. WHO bent to their wishes.
As the agency opened its annual meeting, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said she had listened carefully to the concerns of member states and would follow their instructions.
Britain's Health Secretary Alan Johnson warned that raising the flu alert to phase 6 - the highest level - could needlessly trigger costly and potentially risky actions such as a switch from seasonal to pandemic vaccine even though the virus so far appears to be mild.
"We need to give you and your team more flexibility as to whether we move to phase 6," Johnson said.
Right now the alert level is at phase 5, meaning a global outbreak is "imminent."
Chan repeated her warning that the new swine flu virus continues spreading rapidly and could pose a grave threat to humanity even though the fatality rate was low, with 76 deaths out of 8,829 cases and no major outbreaks outside North America.
"A new influenza virus with great pandemic potential, the new influenza A (H1N1) strain, has emerged," she said. "This virus may have given us a grace period, but we do not know how long this grace period will last," Chan said. "No one can say whether this is just the calm before the storm."
A pandemic announcement would likely have severe economic consequences: it could trigger expensive trade and travel restrictions like border closures, airport screenings and quarantines, as countries not yet affected struggle to keep the virus out.
Governments may also fear outbreaks of mass panic, social disruption, and increased pressures on their health systems. Under public pressure, extraordinary measures such as large-scale pig slaughters like the recent one in Egypt could be taken, whether or not they are scientifically justified.
Among the countries urging WHO to reconsider its pandemic scale was Mexico, which has suffered the most deaths and virtually shut down its economy for several days in response to the outbreak.
"People don't understand what 4, 5 or 6 means," Mexico's Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova told reporters. "They think that when you go to a higher level things are worse."
"Flexibility will very much help the economy," he added.
US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the Associated Press she wanted more information on the proposal before taking a position, but that she was impressed how many countries supported it.
Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the WHO meeting that the outbreak is "not winding down" in the United States and "widespread transmission" continues. He also said the epidemic was not over in Mexico.
Speaking a day after New York school assistant principal Mitchell Wiener died of swine flu, Besser said the world needed to maintain its vigilance against the virus.
At least 40 countries have now confirmed cases, with Japan reporting the largest jump to over 130 in the space of four days. Most of the new cases involved high school students in the western prefectures of Hyogo and Osaka who had not traveled overseas.
Spain and Britain have the highest numbers of cases in Europe, reporting 103 and 101 cases, respectively.