Technology & Science

Canada, WHO stop counting swine flu cases

There are so many new swine flu cases that the World Health Organization this week said governments should stop tallying their national incidence of the H1N1 virus, and Canada is following the advice.

There are so many new swine flu cases that the World Health Organization this week said governments should stop tallying the number of H1N1 patients nationally.

The United Nations health agency said maintaining an accurate count of the number of H1N1 cases has become impossible because of the speed at which the virus is spreading. So the WHO is now asking countries not to send the agency counts of disease cases, and it will stop publishing national swine flu tables.

Canada is following the advice.

The Public Health Agency of Canada will focus on monitoring severe illnesses and measuring the community spread of H1N1, rather than individual cases.

"Counting cases no longer serves our purposes," Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in a press release.

"We want to gain a better understanding of how and why the virus is behaving the way it does, and to be prepared for any changes in the virus or the illness it causes."

Numbers hard to track

WHO officials said governments do not need to know how many cases are in their countries in order to implement proper treatment protocols.

"The counting of individual cases is now no longer essential in such countries for monitoring either the level or nature of the risk posed by the pandemic virus or to guide implementation of the most appropriate response measures," the WHO said in a release.

The WHO said it makes little sense for governments to use scarce health-related resources to try to track essentially untrackable disease numbers.

The disease — which is characterized by chills, fatigue and headaches, among other symptoms — has been spreading rapidly, making the WHO's tracking of outbreaks in different countries hopelessly out-of-date.

For example, the organization's current tally has 95,000 swine flu cases worldwide, with 429 associated deaths. Britain, however, reported 55,000 new H1N1 cases in the first week of July alone.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has counted 37,000 H1N1 cases so far in the United States, with 211 deaths.

Canada has reported more than 10,000 swine flu incidents, with 49 associated deaths.

By contrast, Britain suffered 21,000 deaths attributed to seasonal flu in the 1999-2000 winter alone. 

Still keeping a watchful eye

Governments still need to monitor swine flu levels, the WHO said, mainly to track outbreaks among different populations and locations.

"Signals to be vigilant for include spikes in rates of absenteeism from schools or workplaces, or a more severe disease pattern, as suggested by, for example, a surge in emergency department visits," the WHO said.