Friday, June 12, 2009

Global health officials prepare for H1N1 spread as pandemic alert level raised

"The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic."
— Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, Thursday, June 11, 2009

Needless to say, that news generally is not how you’d like to start the weekend. But there's no need to panic. While the World Health Organization raised the global pandemic alert on June 11 to phase 6 — its highest level — U.S. health officials stressed that the decision is a "reflection of the spread of the (H1N1) virus, not the severity of illness caused by the virus."

So, what does phase 6 mean? According to the World Health Organization, the designation means there is now ongoing community-level outbreaks of the H1N1 virus, sometimes referred to as swine flu, across the globe. As of June 11, CDC reported almost 18,000 confirmed and probable cases of H1N1 in every state, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The same day, WHO reported 30,000 confirmed cases in 74 countries.

But let's shed some perspective: During yesterday’s news conference, WHO's Chan noted that "no previous pandemic has been detected so early or watched so closely, in real-time, right at the very beginning. The world can now reap the benefits of investments, over the last five years, in pandemic preparedness." U.S. officials said they’re preparing for a return of H1N1 during regular flu season in the fall.

The change in the pandemic alert level "was expected and doesn't change what we have been doing here in the United States to prepare for and respond to this public health challenge," according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

And last but not least, U.S. and global health officials urge you to keep on keepin' on — that is, keep up that handwashing, stay home if you're sick and stay informed. For all the squeaky clean tips as well as regular updates, visit CDC's H1N1 page and APHA's influenza Web site.

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