BANGKOK, Apr 29 (IPS) – When the World Health Organisation (WHO) raised the influenza pandemic alert from phase three to an ominous phase four warning this week, it went beyond the alarm associated with the killer avian influenza virus in Asia.

The global health body’s warning came as the outbreak of a lethal strain of swine flu has killed more than 150 people in Mexico – the epicentre of the virus – and has also been detected in parts of the United States, Canada, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

The WHO warning for a possible global pandemic emerging from avian influenza always remained a “phase three alert,” says Peter Cordingley, spokesman for the WHO’s Western Pacific division. “The difference now is that we have raised the pandemic alert to phase four.” “This is WHO’s way of saying [the lethal virus] has edged close to a pandemic situation,” he added during a telephone interview from Manila, where the WHO’s regional office is based. “It can spread internationally.”

(Snip) “The current situation was, at least technically, what we were worried about at the height of the avian influenza scare,” says Cordingley. “It was a situation we were always worried about: the virus going through pigs – the mixing vessel – and emerging as a new virus, infecting humans.”
Worries that the new virus is more potent than the bird flu virus are not out of place. In the over six years since the H5N1 strain emerged in Asia and then spread to other corners of the world, there have been 257 reported deaths out of 421 cases. The worst affected country has been Indonesia, where 115 people have died out of the 141 infected.

Even the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which prompted concern in the region, did not trigger a pandemic alarm with the speed that the H1N1 virus has. SARS spread to humans from animals and was associated with flu-like symptoms, such as high fever, headaches and respiratory problems. Continued:

By the time it was contained, SARS had killed 774 people out of the 8,000 who had been infected in over 20 countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas.