World Health Organisation expert advisors recently met to determine whether the H1N1 flu pandemic is fully over, or still circulating in the southern hemisphere and therefore a global threat.
The WHO will only announce the results of the meeting later on. A WHO spokeswoman said Director-General Margaret Chan had decided to delay the announcement, but gave no reason.
“They are going to look at the info and see what the epi (epidemiological) info says around the world,” WHO spokesperson Gregory Hartl told reporters in Geneva before the meeting.
“The two most likely outcomes are either status quo or ‘post-pandemic’.”
This would mean the experts could skip the “post-peak” phase in the WHO’s pandemic scale, which has been at the top level of 6 since June 2009, and recommend that Chan move the alert level directly to “post-pandemic”.
Chan usually follows the recommendations of the committee, all of whose members except its chairman, Australian professor John Mackenzie, are anonymous to protect them from undue influence.
The UN agency’s guidance on whether a disease constitutes a pandemic determines how its 193 member governments handle an outbreak, including stockpiling vaccines and antivirals.
Hartl stressed that the virus remained threatening to some vulnerable people, notably pregnant women, young children and those with respiratory problems, and would continue to require vaccinations for at-risk groups.
“It is predicted that H1N1 will continue to be the primary or overwhelming virus among influenza viruses for quite a while,” he told journalists. “Pandemic or no pandemic, H1N1 will still exist. If there is no pandemic, it means that H1N1 is behaving like a normal flu virus.”
The WHO has been accused of exaggerating the dangers of the H1N1 outbreak, which was declared a full pandemic in June 2009 after emerging two months earlier.
Symptoms suffered by most people infected with the virus, widely known as swine flu, have been mild. But WHO experts fear it could spread easily among people if it were to mutate into a more dangerous or lethal form.
Laboratory tests have confirmed more than 18 000 deaths from H1N1 infection, according to WHO figures, but the actual global death toll is much higher and will take at least a year after the pandemic ends to establish.
The virus is currently most active in parts of the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, with ongoing infections in parts of Chile. The emergency committee has been waiting for signs of how the virus is developing in the southern hemisphere winter before making a full pronouncement on its state.