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WHO may shorten annual assembly because of flu

THE World Health Organization may cut short its annual assembly this month because health ministers are needed at home to combat the new flu virus spreading around the globe, a spokesman said today.

Diplomats said consensus was building among the WHO's 193 member states to reduce the policy-setting assembly, set for May 18 to 27 in Geneva, to five days because of the pandemic threat.

"It is definitely under consideration, it is a possibility," WHO spokesman Thomas Abraham told Reuters in response to a query.

"The thinking is it should be business-like. People need to be in their home countries. At the same time, it is an important gathering," he said.

Under the U.N. agency's rules, a committee would need to decide to shorten the World Health Assembly on the first day, according to diplomats.

"It would be more manageable and also be recognition that people are spending a lot of time preparing for the worst and hoping for the best," one diplomat said.

The new H1N1 virus has infected 2,371 people in 24 countries, according to the WHO's latest tally issued overnight.

There are 1,112 laboratory-confirmed cases in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak, including 42 deaths, it said. The United States has 896 cases, including two deaths, while Canada has 201 cases and no fatalities.

European countries with cases confirmed in WHO laboratories include Spain (81), Britain (32), Germany (10), Italy (5), France (5), Portugal (1), Poland (1), Ireland (1), Netherlands (2), Austria (1), Denmark (1), Sweden (1), and Switzerland (1).

The WHO has confirmed the following infections in the rest of the world: New Zealand (5), Israel (6), South Korea (3), El Salvador (2), Hong Kong, China (1), Guatemala (1), Colombia (1) and Costa Rica (1).

Evidence that the disease, popularly known as swine flu, has taken hold in communities outside the Americas would prompt WHO Director-General Margaret Chan to declare a full pandemic.

Chan raised the global pandemic alert level last week to 5 out of 6 in response to the spread of H1N1 flu. Phase 5 means a pandemic is imminent.


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