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Health ministers tackle pandemic flu, Japan in focus
Mon May 18, 2009 10:52am EDT
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By Laura MacInnis
GENEVA (Reuters) - The H1N1 flu strain is spreading fast in Japan and the world may be seeing an influenza pandemic unfold, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the flu outbreak needed to be tackled with the utmost seriousness because there were still many unknowns about which path it will take.
"We are all under pressure to make urgent and far-reaching decisions in an atmosphere of considerable scientific uncertainty," she told her U.N. agency's World Health Assembly.
"For the first time in humanity, we are seeing, or we may be seeing, pandemic influenza evolving in front of our eyes," Chan said, noting this had not been the case in 1968, 1957 or 1918.
Richard Besser, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told a high-level meeting during the week-long Assembly that the new H1N1 virus had spread to nearly all 50 U.S. states and showed no signs of abating.
"While we are not seeing the seriousness of illness that was initially reported in Mexico, the outbreak is not over," he said, adding the new virus was likely to circulate worldwide.
Assembly delegates were to discuss how best to harness drugs and vaccines and respond to the H1N1 flu, which has caused mild symptoms in most of the 8,829 patients infected to date in 40 countries, killing 74 people.
Mexico's Health Minister Jose Angel Cordoba told the high-level segment that 3,646 cases had been confirmed in Mexico where there was a slow but steady fall in the number of cases.
Officials will also seek an agreement on how samples of the virus should be handled and shared with pharmaceutical companies working to develop vaccines to fight the strain, which is a genetic mixture of swine, bird and human viruses.
Rich and poor countries remain at odds over whether the biological material can be patented. The meeting will also discuss poor countries' needs for antiviral drugs like Roche's Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline's Relenza and any vaccines developed to confront the strain.
Egypt's envoy said that the threat from the deadly bird flu virus should not be ignored, noting there had been three new human cases of H5N1 in his country in the last week.
Chan said the new strain might pose particular risks when it mixed with the H5N1 flu virus, which has proven deadly in birds and humans but not transmitted easily between people.
It could also cause risks for people with HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, and in crowded shantytowns, she said.
Chan raised the WHO's pandemic alert level to Phase 5 last month in response to the spread of H1N1 in North America, which has had 95 percent of the nearly 9,000 confirmed cases to date. Continued...
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