Updated Sunday, May 17, 2009 10:31 am TWN, By Maria Cheng, AP
What will happen exactly if WHO declares flu pandemic?
LONDON — The World Health Organization has been warning for weeks that swine flu is on the verge of flaring into the first flu pandemic in four decades.
Countries are on the lookout for cases, governments are buying anti-virals, and China has quarantined entire hotels full of people connected to cases.
But if WHO raises its alert to phase 6, the highest level, what exactly will that mean?
Because the word ‘pandemic’ often conjures up images of the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed up to 50 million people worldwide, some people worry a phase 6 would automatically herald a catastrophic death toll.
For the moment, experts say, there could be greater danger in mass panic than in swine flu virulence.
WHO’s pandemic phases only judge how fast a virus spreads – so moving from phase 5 to 6 doesn’t mean the virus is more dangerous, only that it will be spreading widely in another region beyond North America.
So far, swine flu appears as mild as regular flu, meaning even if it does go global, there probably won’t be millions of deaths. But health officials also warn that could change if the virus mutates into a more deadly form.
Some countries worried about global panic attacks over phase 6 are pressuring WHO behind the scenes to hold off on declaring a pandemic. Other countries may also be dragging their feet on testing, fearful that they will be the trigger for hitting the phase 6 threshold.
One reason is that a pandemic announcement would likely have severe economic consequences: it could trigger expensive trade and travel restrictions like border closures and quarantines, as countries not yet affected by the virus struggle to keep it out.
At a recent meeting in Bangkok, 10 Asian nations asked WHO to revise its pandemic phases to consider a flu virus’ severity before announcing a global outbreak.