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WHO says swine flu spread now 'pandemic'

THE World Health Organization declared a swine flu pandemic yesterday - the first global flu epidemic in 41 years - as infections in the United States, Europe, Australia, South America and elsewhere climbed to nearly 30,000 cases.

The long-awaited pandemic announcement is scientific confirmation that a new flu virus has emerged and is quickly circling the globe. The WHO will now ask drug makers to speed up production of a swine flu vaccine. The declaration will also prompt governments to devote more money toward efforts to contain the virus.

WHO chief Dr Margaret Chan made the announcement yesterday after the UN agency held an emergency meeting with flu experts.

Chan said she was moving the world to phase 6 - the agency's highest alert level - which means a pandemic, or global epidemic, is under way.

"The world is moving into the early days of its first influenza pandemic in the 21st century," Chan told reporters. "The (swine flu) virus is now unstoppable."

On Wednesday, the WHO said more than 70 countries had reported more than 27,730 cases of swine flu, including 141 deaths. Chan described the virus as "moderate."

According to the WHO's pandemic criteria, a global outbreak has begun when a new flu virus begins spreading in two world regions.

The agency has stressed that most cases are mild and require no treatment, but the fear is that a rash of new infections could overwhelm hospitals and health authorities - especially in poorer countries.

Still, about half of the people who have died from swine flu were previously young and healthy - people who are not usually susceptible to flu. Swine flu is also crowding out regular flu viruses. Both features are typical of pandemic flu viruses.

The last pandemic - the Hong Kong flu of 1968 - killed about 1 million people. Ordinary flu kills about 250,000 to 500,000 people each year.

Resilient virus

Swine flu is also continuing to spread during the start of summer in the northern hemisphere. Normally, flu viruses disappear with warm weather, but swine flu is proving to be resilient.

Chan would not say which country tipped the world into the pandemic but said all countries and experts agreed that it was time to declare a global outbreak.

WHO said it was now recommending that flu vaccine makers start producing swine flu vaccine. Drug giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC said it could start large-scale production of pandemic vaccine in July but that it would take several months before large quantities would be available.


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