WHO not ready to declare H1N1 pandemic over; U.S. officials urge vaccination

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009

With swine flu cases continuing to mount in many countries, it remains far too early to declare the H1N1 pandemic over, a World Health Organization official said Thursday.

"We are now eight months into the pandemic, and one of the common questions coming to us is: 'Is the pandemic over? Is it time to call it?' " said Keiji Fukuda, special adviser to the WHO director general on pandemic influenza. "The answer is, really: 'It's too early to make the call.' " Fukuda said that while the second wave of infections has peaked in the United States and some other countries in the Northern Hemisphere, the level of flu activity remains high elsewhere -- in some European countries, including Switzerland and the Czech Republic, and in parts of Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan.

"The pandemic is a global event. It is not simply a regional event," he said in a briefing.

Fukuda noted that the virus is likely to continue to spread through the Northern Hemisphere's winter and that another wave is possible in the late winter or early spring.

"We cannot predict whether we will see another upsurge of significant activity," he said.

Because of the uncertainties, the WHO is moving forward with plans to distribute to 95 poor countries at least 180 million doses of vaccine that six companies and 12 countries have pledged to donate. The first countries in line to receive vaccine donations will be Afghanistan, Mongolia and Azerbaijan, he said.

While the WHO has documented only about 10,000 deaths from the pandemic worldwide, Fukuda said it is too early to know whether this pandemic will turn out to be the mildest on record.

"This is likely to be quite an underestimate," he said.

U.S. officials said Thursday that it is unclear whether there will be another surge of cases in the winter or what the final toll from the pandemic will end up being in United States. The family gatherings during the holiday season could fuel the spread of the virus, and the flu season typically peaks in January or February, officials said. Previous pandemics have produced third waves of infections in the late winter and early spring, they said.

Accordingly, several federal health officials urged Americans to continue to get vaccinated. After a slow start to the vaccine campaign, more than 99 million doses are now available and more than 100 million will be ready by the end of the week. Many states are now offering the vaccine to anyone who wants it.

"Our message is: Take advantage of the increased supply and get vaccinated as soon as you can," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said during a briefing for reporters. "We have a wonderful window of opportunity to prevent or hopefully lessen what could be a third wave."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company