June 12, 2009
The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday raised its alert level for H1N1 influenza to Phase 6, declaring the first influenza pandemic of the 21st century, as the virus continued to spread around the globe. It is the first flu pandemic declared by WHO since 1968, when a strain known as Hong Kong flu broke out.
The announcement essentially warns WHO's 194 member nations to expect the arrival of the new flu strain, which is likely to infect up to one-third of the population in the first wave and return in later waves over the next several years.
WHO had been reluctant to move the pandemic alert to its highest level because of fears that doing so would confuse the public and possibly trigger panic. Contributing to the reluctance has been evidence that the new H1N1 strain is far less virulent than most experts expected the next pandemic flu to be. The declaration of Phase 6 does not by itself initiate any particular action, nor does it predict the ultimate severity of the pandemic, which is likely to vary considerably among regions, ages, ethnic groups and economic strata.
As of Wednesday, WHO reported there had been 27,737 cases of influenza A (H1N1) infection, including 141 deaths, in 74 countries. Experts believe, however, that the actual number of infections is far higher.