Australia Is Tipping Point In Swine Flu Outbreak

The spread of swine flu in Australia has convinced the World Health Organization that the world has a flu pandemic — the first in four decades. But the WHO is still nervous about officially declaring a pandemic.

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Even as they debate the future of the health system, that system is monitoring a more immediate threat. The World Health Organization is now convinced that we face a flu pandemic, though officials have not declared it. NPR's Richard Knox reports on the effort not to overreact to swine flu.

RICHARD KNOX: The new H1N1 flu virus that first appeared this spring in Mexico is now in 73 countries. It's spreading especially fast in south Australia. Victoria, with more a thousand cases, reportedly has the world's highest rate of infection. Even remote Alice Springs in the outback has the flu.

The WHO's chief flu expert, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, acknowledges that Australia is the tipping point.

Dr. KEIJI FUKUDA (Chief Flu Expert, World Health Organization): We are getting really very close to knowing that we are in a pandemic situation or declaring that we are in a pandemic situation.

KNOX: Fukuda stresses that the vast majority of people who get the new flu recover on their own, but there are some troubling differences between this and ordinary flu.

Dr. FUKUDA: Half the people who have died from this H1N1 infection have been previously healthy people. This is, I think, one of the observations which has given us the most concern.

KNOX: The WHO is also worried about a disproportionate number of severe flu cases among native communities in northern Manitoba. In previous pandemics, these same populations were very severely hit, Fukuda says.

Dr. FUKUDA: This is why these reports raise such concern to us.

KNOX: He says WHO Director General Margaret Chan hasn't raised the pandemic alert to the highest level yet because the agency is working hard to persuade countries not to overreact when she does. It won't mean the flu has turned more deadly, he says; it won't mean countries should start barring every traveler with the sniffles or slaughtering pigs under the wrong impression they transmit swine flu.

Dr. FUKUDA: These are some of the things that we want to make sure get out there that people are hearing them, so that there is not really a blossoming of anxiety.

KNOX: But it's possible this flu virus could change over the coming months. So, the WHO's message about how dangerous this flu is may have to change too.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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