WHO advisors again hold at current pandemic phase

Jun 3, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – Based on an assessment of outside experts, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced today that it is sticking with its current pandemic alert level, based on recurring but low-level activity in some parts of the globe and until it has more information on the Southern Hemisphere's flu season.

The WHO's emergency committee met for the eighth time on Jun 1 to advise WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. Low levels of pandemic flu transmission, especially in Northern Hemisphere countries, fueled speculation that the WHO experts might advise a move from pandemic alert phase 6 (pandemic phase) to a post-peak phase.

Currently, the most active areas of pandemic flu activity are in tropical areas such as the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, according to the WHO statement.

In some countries, pandemic response actions are tied to the WHO's current pandemic phase, and a move to a different phase might trigger changes in measures such as surveillance and testing. The emergency committee that advised the WHO on pandemic phases was set up under International Health Regulations (IHRs).

In a statement today, Chan said that, after extensive discussion, the committee unanimously agreed that, although the most intense period of pandemic activity has likely passed for some parts of the world, the virus continues to spread in other locations and countries need to keep public health measures and surveillance systems in place.

Chan said the committee will meet again in mid July to reassess the epidemiologic status of the flu pandemic. By then, health officials will have more information about how the Southern Hemisphere's flu season, which typically runs from May through October, is unfolding. Australia recently reported an increase in flu-like illnesses, but the country's health officials linked most of it to respiratory syncytial virus.

Though the monovalent pandemic vaccine is reportedly plentiful in Australia, the country is experiencing shortages of the trivalent seasonal flu vaccine, and one manufacturer, CSL Ltd, has recalled its pediatric flu vaccine after investigations linked it to increased rates of fever and convulsions in children younger than 5.

Meanwhile, the department of health in South Africa, where the month-long soccer World Cup competition begins on Jun 11, has advised travelers to get vaccinated against seasonal and pandemic flu. Many countries, anticipating that many will travel to the tournament in South Africa during its flu season, have advised their World Cup fans and participants to get both flu shots.

After the emergency committee completes its work, the WHO will disclose member names, Chan said in her statement today. "The purpose of this practice is to protect the integrity and independence of the members while doing this critical work, but also to ensure transparency by publicly providing the names of the members as well as information about any interest declared by them at the appropriate time," she said. Some groups, such as the Council of Europe's Committee on Social, Health, and Family Affairs, have criticized the WHO's pandemic response and called for more transparency about the pandemic and vaccine issues.

An independent panel commissioned by the WHO is currently reviewing its pandemic response and how well IHRs functioned in their first major test during a global disease outbreak.

See also:

Jun 3 WHO statement

Feb 24 CIDRAP News story "WHO sticks with current pandemic phase"

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