'Premature' to declare pandemic over: WHO
It's too early to declare an end to the H1N1 flu pandemic, the head of the World Health Organization said Tuesday.
Swine flu may have peaked in the United States, Canada, Britain and some other countries in the Northern Hemisphere, but there is still intense flu activity in Egypt, India and elsewhere, WHO director general Dr. Margaret Chan told a year-end news conference in Geneva.
"It is still premature and too early for us to say we have come to an end of the pandemic influenza worldwide. It would be prudent and appropriate …to continue to monitor the evolution of this pandemic for the next six to 12 months," Chan said.
"The one thing we need to guard against is a sense of complacency," she added, noting experts will "watch this virus with eagle's eyes" for any signs it has mutated into a potentially more dangerous form.
Last month, the UN health agency warned of new cases of bird flu, H5N1, in poultry in Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, which could increase the risk of mixing between the deadlier avian flu virus and swine flu, which spreads easily.
"The world is not ready for a pandemic caused by H5N1," said Chan, who helped fight avian flu in her native Hong Kong by ordering the destruction of poultry flocks. She also was in charge during the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong's hospitals in 2003.
H1N1 has now spread to more than 200 countries, and more than 11,500 laboratory confirmed deaths have occurred since April, but it could take two years to determine the death toll.
Most people infected with H1N1 recover without medical treatment, but there are severe cases among people under age 65 who are typically not at risk during regular flu seasons.
Lack of accountability online
Some have criticized WHO's June 11 declaration of a pandemic and those trying to vaccinate hundreds of millions against H1N1 given the relatively small number of deaths in comparison with previous pandemics. Between 250,000 and 500,000 people die from regular flu each year.
On the internet, WHO has been accused of colluding to create and unleash the new virus.
"I can understand all these suspicions and conspiracy thinking, but I must emphasize there's no basis for that. Absolutely no basis," Chan insisted in an interview on Monday with The Canadian Press.
Chan said she coaches her staff not to get defensive about criticism, and to listen if there is any substance.
"You, the media, representing the public, hold me accountable. You hold ministries of health accountable. … You follow up on what we say."
"But where is the accountability with individuals who put things on YouTube, on Facebook, on blogs? ... Anything goes on the web. And individuals have to see through this avalanche of information — or disinformation — to make their judgment."
"That is the communications challenge that we are dealing with."
Chan said she has not received the H1N1 shot but would have it soon, adding to reporters, "I am a bit more relaxed, but I will never let down my guard."
With files from The Associated Press, The Canadian Press