Swine flu pandemic over - WHO

 

The H1N1 pandemic is over and the global outbreak turned out to be much less severe than was feared just over a year ago, the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said today.

WHO director-general Margaret Chan again rebutted criticism that the United Nations agency had hyped the first pandemic in more than 40 years, whose mildness left some Western governments holding huge stockpiles of unused vaccines.

The Hong Kong public health expert said the world had been lucky the H1N1 "swine flu" virus had not mutated into a more deadly form and that a safe vaccine developed in record time remained effective against it.

"We are now moving into the post-pandemic period. The new H1N1 virus has largely run its course," Ms Chan said. "That was the right call," she said, defending the decision taken in June last year to declare a pandemic.

The swine flu virus will continue to circulate as part of seasonal influenza for years to come, requiring health authorities to remain vigilant, she told a news conference. It still threatens high-risk groups including pregnant women who would benefit from vaccination, she said.

Stockpiled H1N1 vaccines remain effective against the strain and so far the virus has not developed widespread resistance to the antiviral oseltamivir, the best treatment, she said.

The WHO's downgrading of the H1N1 outbreak to "post-pandemic" was based on recommendations by external influenza experts who conducted a review earlier in the day.

"I think even if we see severe outbreaks occurring in some countries - which is still definitely possible - that the global threat is really much lower and much different than a year ago," Keiji Fukuda, WHO's top flu expert, told reporters.

In June 2009, the WHO said a new swine flu virus, H1N1, that emerged in the United States and Mexico and spread around the world in six weeks, was the first pandemic since 1968. A full pandemic corresponds to phase 6 on the WHO's six-point scale.

Some 18,450 people worldwide are confirmed to have died from H1N1 infections, including many pregnant women and young people. But WHO says that it will take at least a year after the pandemic ends to determine the true death toll, which is likely to be much higher.

Seasonal flu kills up to an estimated 500,000 people a year, 90 per cent of them frail elderly people, according to the WHO. The 1957 and 1968 pandemics killed about two million and one million people, respectively, it says.

Reuters