EU considers raising alert level over flu virus

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The World Health Organisation is edging towards declaring the H1N1 flu outbreak a stage six pandemic – the highest level on the WHO’s six-point scale. However, it is expected that any such declaration will include the caveat that the virus, commonly referred to as ‘swine flu’, is rarely lethal.

EU health ministers discussed the situation yesterday (8 June) at a meeting in Luxembourg on a day when 26 new cases of the flu were confirmed in Europe. 

In the past 24 hours, 14 cases were recored in Germany, four each in the Netherlands and Austria, and one each in France and Denmark, according to figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. 

The total number of cases in the EU and European Free Trade Association has risen to 1,056, with fresh outbreaks also confirmed in China, New Zealand, Chile and the US. 

If, as expected, the WHO raises the alert to level six it is likely to stress that the virus is not very lethal and has only been linked to around 125 deaths, according to Dr Keiji Fukuda, a flu expert at the organisation. It would be the first full-scale pandemic in 41 years. 

The WHO’s international health regulations committee has recommended a more sophisticated formula for measuring the seriousness of flu outbreaks. The current system is based primarily on geographic spread of the disease. 

“There was a broad consensus on the importance of including information on severity” in deciding whether the WHO should raise the pandemic alert to the highest level, the organisation said in a statement after meeting in Geneva. 

It has been reported that a number of countries are putting pressure on the WHO not to declare the H1N1 outbreak a full-scale global pandemic, amid fears that such an announcement would be economically damaging. 

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