Swine Flu Spreading Faster Globally Than Expected

The H1N1 flu virus is now the dominant influenza virus around the globe, according to the World Health Organization. The agency has declared the swine flu outbreak a pandemic, with nearly 500,000 confirmed cases and over 6,000 deaths reported worldwide. Host Liane Hansen speaks with the WHO flu specialist Dr. Anthony Mounts about the spread of the virus and the global response.

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The H1N1 flu virus is now the dominant influenza virus around the globe, according to the World Health Organization. The agency has declared the swine flu outbreak a pandemic with nearly 500,000 confirmed cases and over 6,000 deaths reported worldwide.

For more on the virus's global impact, we're joined by Dr. Anthony Mounts. He's team lead for pandemic monitoring and surveillance with the World Health Organization, and he joins us from Geneva, Switzerland. Welcome to the show.

Dr. ANTHONY MOUNTS (Team Lead, Pandemic Monitoring and Surveillance, World Health Organization): Yes, thank you.

HANSEN: How would you characterize the global spread of the H1N1 virus?

Dr. MOUNTS: It has been incredibly fast actually. I think faster than anyone would have predicted in the beginning before it started. It's already spread through the southern hemisphere countries, where they recently had winter. So, now, what we're seeing in the northern hemisphere, I think, is just the mirror image of that. It's now approaching wintertime, it's normal flu season, conditions are right for the transmission of the virus. And so you're seeing a rapid rise.

HANSEN: Do you see any links between the people who have died from the virus? I mean, preexisting conditions, certain vulnerability?

Dr. MOUNTS: Yes, there is. I mean, theres definitely an association. People that die of this virus are much more likely to have underlying medical conditions, like diabetes, chronic lung disease, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, asthma, those kinds of things. And in children, the children that are particularly vulnerable are those with respiratory problems like asthma, but also children with cerebral palsy or severe neurological problems.

HANSEN: Is it possible for you to break out those numbers, the 6,000 who have died, like how many were children, how many were elderly?

Dr. MOUNTS: I can't exactly break out the numbers, but I can tell you who's at highest risk. We know from looking at a variety of countries' data that children under the age of 5 are really at highest risk for requiring hospitalization for having severe disease. But they're not at highest risk of death. It's actually the age group between 50 and 59 or 50 to 65, that range.

HANSEN: Dr. Mounts, I'm kind of surprised to hear you say that, that those between 50 and 59 are more susceptible to death because that is not the risk group that is being vaccinated.

Dr. MOUNTS: You know, the vaccination strategies, it depends on what you're trying to accomplish with vaccination. There is some evidence that you can actually prevent transmission of the virus if you vaccinate school-age children, for example. So, even though they may not be at highest risk for dying or even being hospitalized by vaccinating them, you may protect older individuals just because there's less transmission.

I mean, children of school age are certainly more likely to get infected and probably transmit a lot more of the virus in the community than any other age group. The strategy for vaccination depends on a lot more factors than just individual risk.

HANSEN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Dr. Anthony Mounts, a flu specialist with the World Health Organization. Where are we in the virus's proliferation cycle? I mean, do you see it reaching a peak, is it nearing a peak?

Dr. MOUNTS: I believe it is in North America. We've been looking at some of the information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it looks like parts of the U.S., at least, it's starting to peak, perhaps in the Southeast. It's a little bit too early to tell. I think you need another week or so to watch.

But further north in Canada it's still spreading. I don't think it's peaked yet. It's spreading eastward from British Columbia across Canada. In Europe, in the temperate zones of Europe, it's still spreading eastward from Western Europe.

HANSEN: In many places across the United States, demand for the H1N1 vaccine is outpacing supply. Can you assess the level of preparedness and vaccine supplies on a global scale?

Dr. MOUNTS: Well, we've known forever, I guess, that vaccine supplies wouldn't bee sufficient to vaccinate everyone. And so the focus has been on vaccinating those at higher risk. And many of the countries that preordered vaccine in the beginning, at the onset of the pandemic, have now volunteered donations of large supplies of vaccines for developing countries. And the focus in all of those countries really is to protect the most vulnerable - pregnant women, people with chronic medical conditions and so on.

HANSEN: Later this month, Muslims from around the world will gather in Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. How is the Saudi government preparing, given concerns about the spread of the virus?

Dr. MOUNTS: I think they've got a pretty good plan. They've made some recommendations to countries that send pilgrims to the Hajj about people that should and shouldn't come. And there's been a lot of discussion, a lot of preparations now.

HANSEN: Dr. Anthony Mounts is team lead for pandemic monitoring and surveillance with the World Health Organization. He joined us from Geneva, Switzerland. Thank you.

Dr. MOUNTS: Oh, thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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