WHO declares H1N1 pandemic

In response to the ongoing spread of the novel influenza A virus (H1N1), the World Health Organization (WHO) Thursday declared the outbreak a global pandemic. The designation reflects the geographic spread of the virus, not the severity of its illness, health officials said.

Seventy-four countries are now reporting some 28,000 cases of human infection with novel H1N1 flu and 144 associated deaths. In the United States, there have been 13,000 confirmed cases and 27 related deaths. These numbers have been steadily increasing worldwide over the past few weeks.

According to WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan, no previous pandemic has been detected so early or watched so closely

“The world can now reap the benefits of investments, over the last five years, in pandemic preparedness,” she said in Thursday’s prepared announcement.

In the early going, Dr. Chan predicted the pandemic will be of moderate severity, however she cautioned that countries should prepare to see cases, or the further spread of cases, in the near future. Countries where outbreaks appear to have peaked should prepare for a second wave of infection.

There still have been no confirmed cases of H1N1 novel influenza A in Northfield, but officials at Northfield Hospital & Clinics are actively monitoring the situation and taking standard precautions to deal with an outbreak should one occur.

People are advised to follow standard recommendations for preventing the spread of the flu virus – if you are sick.:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with your sleeve when you cough or sneeze.
  • Clean your hands frequently and thoroughly – with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub solution.
  • Limit your contact with others who may be ill.
  • Clean your hands after shaking hands or having other close contact with other people – before eating or preparing food, or touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Stay home from work or school – and generally avoid going out in public.
  • If you are an employer, encourage your employees to stay home if they are sick.

According to WHO, the novel H1N1 virus preferentially infects younger people. In nearly all areas with large and sustained outbreaks, the majority of cases have occurred in people under the age of 25 years. In some of these countries, around 2 percent of cases have developed severe illness, often with very rapid progression to life-threatening pneumonia.

Most cases of severe and fatal infections have been in adults between the ages of 30 and 50 years. This pattern is significantly different from that seen during epidemics of seasonal influenza, when most deaths occur in frail elderly people.

Officials say many, though not all, severe cases have occurred in people with underlying chronic conditions. Based on limited, preliminary data, conditions most frequently seen include respiratory diseases, notably asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and obesity.

At the same time, officials note that around one-third to half of the severe and fatal infections are occurring in previously healthy young and middle-aged people. Pregnant women are at increased risk of complications.