PUBLIC HEALTH
June 23, 2009

WHO Declares Flu Pandemic

It's official: the World Health Organization has raised the status of the H1N1 or swine flu virus to the highest level.
On June 11, 2009 the World Health Organization upped the status of the H1N1 virus — otherwise known as swine flu — to the highest level on the worldwide pandemic alert scale, a phase 6. This designation officially declared it a global pandemic.

However, as mentioned in our earlier article on swine flu, declaring a pandemic indicates nothing about the severity of the disease, only that it is considered to be spreading at a certain rate across the globe. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), and as of June 15, 2009, over 70 countries have citizens afflicted with the virus, totaling some 36,000 confirmed cases, but of those only about 163 deaths have been attributed to the disease.

The CDC has given physicians specific guidelines for identifying and caring for patients with the virus. As is often the case, antiviral drugs are used somewhat sparingly, with priority given to people hospitalized for the disease and to those who are at greater risk for complications, such as pregnant women, the very young, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems. Fortunately, the prescription drugs oseltamivir and zanamivir (commercially known as Tamiflu and Relenza) are both affective against the H1N1 virus. The CDC has dispensed all of its testing kits, both throughout the US and around the world, so that other countries may also test for incidence of the virus.

The good news is that the CDC has isolated the H1N1 flu and developed a new candidate vaccine. On June 12, the pharmaceutical company, Novartis, announced that it had successfully made a first batch of the vaccine, which is now being evaluated and tested before it can be used in clinical trials on people.

The CDC is monitoring the situation closely and has found that the spread of the H1N1 virus appears to be losing momentum in the United States, which comes as more good news. It does seem to be gaining momentum in other parts of the world, however. The CDC says that it has no way of telling whether the virus will return to the Northern Hemisphere as winter approaches, or whether it will be more virulent if it does. They will also closely monitor the efficacy of antiviral drugs on the flu to track whether the virus may mutate and become resistant to these medications.

The CDC continues to urge individuals to protect themselves and others by taking a few simple steps:
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, and/or use hand sanitizer, particularly after sneezing and coughing
  • Cover your mouth and nose completely when you sneeze
  • Try not to touch your nose, eyes, and mouth too much, as these are common avenues for germs
  • If you believe you have the flu stay at home, if possible, for seven days after your symptoms start or for one day after they end (whichever time period is longer)
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