Aug 10, 2010 12:54 PM by Melissa Canone
GENEVA (AP) - The World Health Organization declared the swine
flu pandemic officially over Tuesday, months after many national
authorities started canceling vaccine orders and shutting down
telephone hot lines as the disease ebbed from the headlines.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the organization's
emergency committee of top flu experts advised her that the
pandemic had "largely run its course" and the world is no longer
in phase six - the highest influenza alert level.
"I fully agree with the committee's advice," Chan told
reporters in a telephone briefing from her native Hong Kong.
The virus has now entered the "post-pandemic" phase, meaning
disease activity around the world has returned to levels usually
seen for seasonal influenza, she said.
But Chan cautioned against complacency, saying that even though
hospitalizations and deaths have dropped sharply, countries should
still keep a watchful eye for unusual patterns of infection and
mutations that might render existing vaccines and antiviral drugs
"It is likely that the virus will continue to cause serious
disease in younger age groups," she said, urging high-risk groups
such as pregnant women to continue seeking vaccination.
Unusually, swine flu hits young adults harder than the over-65s,
who are believed to have some immunity to the A(H1N1) strain.
At least 18,449 people have died worldwide since the outbreak
began in April 2009. WHO, which received at least $170 million from
member states to deal with the pandemic, said last week that the
true death toll is likely to be higher. But the organization's flu
chief, Keiji Fukuda, said a final number won't be known for some
Still, lab-confirmed deaths globally increased by only about 300
in the past two months and many countries have long since closed
the chapter on swine flu.
Governments in Europe and North America started dumping vaccines
earlier this year after finding their stocks were full of unused
and expiring supplies.
The United States stopped classifying swine flu as a public
health emergency in June, while health authorities in Britain shut
down their pandemic flu hot line in February and later canceled
vaccine a third of vaccine orders as it became clear the pandemic
strain would be less dangerous than feared. Worst-case scenarios
had predicted up to 65,000 deaths in Britain. In the end there were
457 confirmed deaths from swine flu.
In Germany, authorities are meeting later this week to discuss
who is going to pick up the bill for the 34 million doses of
vaccines that were ordered and mostly not used.
A report by the French Senate published last month criticized
WHO's handling of the pandemic, in particularly what it described
as an "overestimation" of the risk and insufficient transparency
about links between WHO experts and the pharmaceutical industry.
In January, polls showed 70 percent of French population thought
the government overestimated the danger of the virus H1N1 and
ordered too many doses of vaccine. The government had purchased 94
millions doses of vaccine, but canceled half of the initial order
at the start of the year.
WHO chief Chan insisted that declaring swine flu a pandemic had
been the right decision, based on the internationally agreed rules
that existed at the time.
"We have been aided by pure good luck," she said, adding that
if the virus had mutated then the death rate could have been much
higher. In some countries as many as two in five people are now
immune to swine flu, she said.
But Chan acknowledged that changes may be made to the way WHO
defines pandemics. "We need to review the phases, including the
severity," she said.
Prof. Angus Nicoll, flu program coordinator at the European
Center for Disease Prevention and Control, said the decision to
declare the pandemic over was consistent with the Stockholm-based
body's recent findings.
While flu activity in the northern hemisphere is seasonally low,
monitoring in southern hemisphere countries shows that few people
are falling seriously ill from swine flu, said Nicoll.
Local spikes in flu deaths, such as seen recently in India, are
likely due to better surveillance, he said.
Nevertheless, health officials around the world should prepare
for a new type of seasonal flu to appear in the near future that
will combine elements of the pandemic A(H1N1) strain, and older
A(H3N2) strain and several lesser strains, said Nicoll.
"It looks sort of middle of the road at the moment," he said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
said even though swine flu turned out milder than expected,
officials have gained valuable insights into how to deal with a
pandemic flu outbreak.
"The most important lesson learned from this experience is the
critical need for new influenza manufacturing processes," said HHS
spokesman Bill Hall.
Chan, in her exchange with journalists, also raised the specter
of deadlier flu pandemics in future.
"Lurking in the background we still have H5N1," she said, a
reference to the bird flu strain that has infected 503 people over
seven years, killing 299.