The World Health Organization is “very, very close” to declaring an official swine flu pandemic, after a sharp spike in cases in several countries, including Australia.
The WHO has so far left its six-level pandemic alert scale unchanged at phase five, signalling that a pandemic is “imminent.” But a swift increase in cases in the southeastern Australian state of Victoria could prompt the organisation to declare its first pandemic in four decades.
The country has recorded 1,211 infections, with 1,011 in Victoria, the fourth highest number of infections in the world. Less than a month ago Australia had only a handful of cases of the H1N1 virus but its spread has been rapid.
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“We are getting very, very close,” said Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director-general, noting that in Australia, there was now “a great deal of activity in Victoria at the community level.”
Under the WHO’s guidelines, one key criteria for declaring a pandemic would be established community spread in a country outside the first region in which the disease was initially reported, in this case, outside the Americas.
The UN health agency’s guidelines had initially focused on the geographical criteria to justify a phase change. However, member states have called on the agency to take other elements, such as severity of the disease into account.