Keiji Fukuda: said it was “quite likely” the WHO would declare a pandemic in the near future

Official says H1N1 could infect third of world

May 7, 2009 at 9:18 AM EDT

BANGKOK — A third of the world’s population could be infected by the H1N1 flu virus in the next year, a top UN health official said today, urging Asian governments to stay alert for a potentially wider pandemic.

Keiji Fukuda, acting assistant director-general for the World Health Organization (WHO), also said it was “quite likely” the WHO would declare a pandemic in the near future but a final decision had not been made.

“This is a disease that could potentially infect a third or more of the world’s population in the next several months, in the next year,” Mr. Fukuda told Asian health officials meeting in Bangkok by conference call from Geneva.

He added that “even if the illnesses appear relatively mild on a global level, the global population level adds up to enormous numbers.”

Health ministers from Japan, China, South Korea and the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) will attend the Bangkok meeting on Friday to discuss efforts to co-ordinate their fight against the virus.

Thai soldiers and police imposed tight security around the meeting venue today to prevent any recurrence of the violence that forced an Asian leaders’ summit to be cancelled in April.

Also known as swine flu, the virus, which has killed 44 people in Mexico and the United States and spread through Europe, has not appeared widely in Asia so far. There are five confirmed cases in New Zealand, three in South Korea and one in Hong Kong.

After bouts with SARS and bird flu in recent years, Asian health officials said they were better prepared to handle a pandemic, with stronger surveillance systems, laboratories and stockpiling of antiviral drugs.

But David Nabarro, the UN influenza co-ordinator, worried governments might get complacent because many people in harder-hit countries had experienced only mild symptoms from the flu and recovered without medicine.

He said the most serious flu pandemic of modern times, which killed some 40 million people in 1918-19, started with a milder early wave of infections. “We have to maintain vigilance and understand that the virus we are dealing with could easily change and become much more ferocious. We cannot let down our guard, regardless of what we are seeing at the moment,” Mr. Nabarro told the conference.

Mr. Fukuda said there was no decision yet on whether to revise the WHO’s pandemic alert, now at 5. He said it could drop to 4 or rise to the top of its 6-point scale, which would activate emergency response plans to fight the virus.

“I think all these possibilities are open right now, although again it’s quite likely we could go to Phase 6 in the near future,” he said.


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