WHO to decide whether worst over in H1N1 pandemic

GENEVA — The World Health Organization will convene its emergency committee later this month to examine whether the H1N1 flu pandemic has peaked, its top influenza expert said Feb. 11.

"What we are hoping for is that the worst is behind us," Keiji Fukuda told a news conference reported by Reuters.

Fukuda said the committee, which makes recommendations on the state of a pandemic to WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, would decide whether the H1N1 pandemic declared in June had entered a post-peak or transition phase.

Designating a transition phase in this way — indicating that the pandemic is continuing but the overall trend is back toward seasonal patterns of influenza — would help national health authorities look to the future, he said.

“What we are hoping for is that the worst is behind us,” Fukuda said. “We are seeing an overall declining pattern of activity in the northern hemisphere. However, it’s also very clear that the virus has not disappeared and it’s continuing to cause disease and death in many parts of the world.”

Even if the WHO decided the pandemic had peaked, the virus remained active, causing disease and death, and could continue to flare up in some regions, as it had done recently in West Africa, Fukuda said

"The ending of a pandemic cannot be construed an abrupt on-or-off situation," he said.

Laboratory-confirmed deaths total more than 15,000, but the real toll is likely to be much higher, although that will not be established for a year or two, he said.

The WHO has not yet set a firm date for the emergency committee meeting, but it would probably be in the last week of February, Fukuda said.

More than 15,000 deaths from the flu have been confirmed by laboratory tests since the outbreak began in April, Fukuda said. The full death toll won’t be known for a year or two after the pandemic, he said. Seasonal flu kills as many as 500,000 people a year, according to WHO statistics.

The Geneva-based agency’s pandemic guidelines anticipate a “post-peak period” where the worst of a pandemic is over, but normal seasonal flu patterns haven’t yet resumed, Fukuda said. The WHO’s emergency committee provides guidance and advice to the agency’s director general.

“The current pandemic virus is by far the most common virus being isolated for influenza viruses around the world,” Fukuda said. “It’s showing no signs of disappearing.”