Monday, April 27

Counting Down to a Flu Pandemic?

A very serious story that is playing out today is the flu outbreak that has officials across North America, Spain, France, Hong Kong, and New Zealand on high alert.

Reuters reports that a virologist at the University of Hong Kong who helped to fight SARS and bird flu, Guan Yi, said a flu-like pandemic looked inevitable. "I think the spread of this virus in humans cannot possibly be contained within a short time ... We are counting down to a pandemic." This as 149 people in Mexico have died as a result of the flu and Mexican officials closing down schools and other public places. The threat level or phase of the disease, with confirmed cases reported by the World Health Organization in Mexico, the United States, Canada and Spain, is at a high level: phase 4 out of 6.

The WHO defines Phase 4 as "characterized by verified human-to-human transmission of an animal or human-animal influenza reassortant virus able to cause “community-level outbreaks.” The ability to cause sustained disease outbreaks in a community marks a significant upwards shift in the risk for a pandemic. Any country that suspects or has verified such an event should urgently consult with WHO so that the situation can be jointly assessed and a decision made by the affected country if implementation of a rapid pandemic containment operation is warranted. Phase 4 indicates a significant increase in risk of a pandemic but does not necessarily mean that a pandemic is a forgone conclusion."

The next phase is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Dr. Richard Besser was quoted as saying, "We are seeing rates of respiratory infections among contacts. This virus is acting like a flu virus and flu viruses spread from person to person." This means it is highly contagious and can spread relatively quickly.

Reuters also reports that the CDC had taken a sample of the virus causing the disease, produced a vaccine virus strain and was now growing it in eggs, the first stage in a vaccine production process.

"We certainly know that the work has begun to produce a vaccine," Gregory Hartl of the CDC said, adding that it would typically be 5-6 months from this initial development before a vaccine was commercially available.

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