June 11, 2009 -- The World Health Organization this morning formally declared that swine flu had reached the level of a full-blown pandemic, moving the viral outbreaks to phase 6 on the pandemic alert scale.
WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan met with flu experts at 6 a.m. ET today in Geneva to discuss the spread of the novel virus, and since Wednesday the escalation to the highest level of pandemic alert had been widely anticipated.
The move reflects the continued spread of the virus around the globe, despite quarantines, school closings and other measures designed to keep it in check. Swine flu is the first official influenza pandemic in more than 40 years.
However, public health experts say there's no reason for the public to be more concerned about the virus today than yesterday; indeed, it is unlikely that much will change at all for the general public.
A joint statement issued today by Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano noted that the WHO decision "was expected" and that it "doesn't change what we have been doing here in the United States to prepare for and respond to this public health challenge."
Health experts concurred. "From a macro view, the main actions defined for WHO phase 5 are the same as those for phase 6," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "However, individual countries and communities may have conditioned key tactical and operational steps of their response to the WHO phases, so there could be significant local, regional, or national impact. Technically, we have been in phase 6 for some time."
"When you hear this announcement, and your children are with you, main thing is to reassure kids not really all that much is going to change unless things get more severe," Dr. Irwin Redlener of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York, told "Good Morning America."
Other infectious disease experts were quick to point out that the pandemic designation refers to the spread of a disease -- not its severity.
"WHO's declaration that the H1N1 virus infection is now pandemic in nature merely confirms the obvious that there is community transmission worldwide," said Dr. Pascal James Imperato, dean of the Graduate Program in Public Health at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. "A level 6 is only a statement of geographic spread, not a statement defining severity of clinical illness."
Swine Flu's Impact Still Relatively Limited
Despite the WHO declaration, the impact of the swine flu outbreaks has been relatively mild thus far. Of the 27,000 people who have gotten this flu worldwide, only 141 have been confirmed to have died from it. By comparison, about 250,000 people worldwide die from the seasonal flu every year.
The vast majority of the roughly 13,000 cases in the United States have been mild. Take, for example, the Henshaw family from Texas, who were quarantined in their home in April after 18-year-old Hayden Henshaw contracted the swine flu. He recovered quickly and graduated days ago.
"It was good to be at school around people," Hayden Henshaw said. "It didn't seem like anybody was scared of me."
"Maybe it was a little over the top what they had us do," noted Hayden's mother, Robin Henshaw. "But I just think it was necessary at the time. At the time they really didn't know."
Balancing Public Health Against Panic
The swine flu saga, now in its second month, is the first exposure many Americans have had to an influenza pandemic. For many, the use of the term pandemic has resurrected images of the infamous 1918 pandemic, which is believed to have caused 50 million deaths worldwide.
But subsequent pandemics have been far less deadly, resulting in far fewer deaths than the seasonal flu in the years in which they struck.
"We have readily weathered pandemics in 1968 and 1957 and, yes, there was some increase in the numbers of deaths due primarily to pneumonia, but commerce proceeded normally," said Dr. D.A.Henderson, professor of medicine and public health at the University of Pittsburgh. "In the course of warnings and preparation, the word 'pandemic' now conjures up a 1918-like scenario and, regrettably, many of our public health gurus have themselves become fixated on this scenario."
Still, the threat may not be completely over. Some infectious disease experts said the worst could come later in the year if the virus resurges or becomes more deadly.
"The big bang -- if it comes -- will be in the fall," said Dr. Peter Katona, associate professor of clinical medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Public health officials have to be very careful not to look foolish by having the appropriate level of concern."
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