Wednesday, April 29, 2009

WHO: emergency "scientific review" in Geneva, Italy.

WHO calls emergency meeting; eyes pandemic level
1 hour ago
GENEVA (AP) — The World Health Organization
is calling a third emergency meeting of its flu experts in response to a spike in swine flu cases.
The panel meeting Wednesday will discuss the current alert level — at phase 4, two levels below the threshold for a full pandemic outbreak.
In response to the panel's earlier advice, WHO declared the outbreak an international public health emergency and raised its pandemic alert level, meaning the risk of a global outbreak has jumped.
WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said the agency's director-general Margaret Chan "has seen a jump in cases and she wants to have that evaluated by the outside experts."
He says that does not automatically mean there will be a change in the pandemic alert level. This comes in addition to a WHO scientific review meeting, also on Wednesday.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
The World Health Organization was holding an emergency "scientific review" Wednesday of the swine flu outbreak to determine exactly what is known about how the disease spreads, how it affects human health and how it can be treated.
Experts will take part via telephone from the United States, Mexico and other countries where people have been infected by swine flu. The U.N. health body said a report will be published shortly after the meeting.
Swine flu is suspected of killing more than 150 people in Mexico and sickening over 2,400 there.
WHO has confirmed 105 cases of swine flu in seven countries. Over half of those — 66 — are in the United States, but Mexico is the only country where deaths have been confirmed.
Dr. Nikki Shindo, a WHO flu expert taking part in the meeting, said medical experts are still trying to determine just how dangerous the virus is.
"Swine virus has been found occasionally in human beings," she said. "The one thing we don't really understand is why the cases in Mexico are so severe."
WHO is looking into whether the Mexican cases involve underlying medical conditions that have caused people there to fare worse than patients elsewhere in the world, she said.
In the United States, all patients have been listed as recovered or recovering.
Shindo told The Associated Press that "hundreds of thousands" of people in Mexico could theoretically be infected with swine flu even if they are showing no or only mild symptoms.
In the past, most swine flu patients have shown only mild symptoms, and the disease tends to be far less serious in humans and animals than the bird flu virus that has infected at least 421 people and killed 257 in the last six years.
Partly for that reason, much of the global preparations for a possible pandemic had focused on bird flu.
Shindo said it was important to keep in mind that even normal flu outbreaks kill people. In poor countries such as Madagascar and Congo, outbreaks of seasonal influenza have infected up to half of the population, with mortality rates reaching 1 percent of the entire nation.
Shindo said the WHO meeting Wednesday would begin to address the urgent need to "look at the clinical and epidemiological data from this disease." Only then, she said, can health experts begin to answer the biggest question: "How serious this virus will be?"
The meeting will focus particularly on a large trove of data coming from Mexico, believed to be the epicenter of the virus, and from New York City, where a smaller outbreak has infected people.
Shindo said the outbreak linked to students at St. Francis Preparatory school in Queens is an important case study that "will help us understand how the virus is spread, it's incubation period and the severity of infection."
She said doctors expect to have a much fuller understanding of how the swine flu virus infects people by the end of the week.
"The tricky thing is the virus will evolve very, very quickly, so we have to continuously monitor it," she said. "We have to receive sequential samples from cases and we have to exchange information among the countries that already have cases to monitor the change of the virus."
Shindo said WHO affiliates around the world will also consider a request from the Food and Agriculture Organization to stop calling the disease swine flu, since the virus is not food-borne and has nothing to do with eating pork.
On Wednesday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack suggested a new name, arguing that swine flu suggests a problem with pork products. China, Russia and Ukraine are among the countries who have banned pork imports from Mexico and parts of the United States affected by swine flu.
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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