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The World Health Organization has told its member nations it is declaring a swine flu pandemic — the first global flu epidemic in 41 years.
The move came Thursday as infections climbed in the United States, Europe, Australia, South America and elsewhere.
In a statement sent to member countries, WHO says it decided to raise the pandemic alert level from phase 5 to 6, meaning that a global outbreak of swine flu has begun. The decision was made after the U.N. health agency held an emergency meeting on swine flu with its experts.
Health officials from Scotland, Indonesia and Thailand said the agency would declare a swine flu pandemic — a global epidemic — on Thursday after a teleconference with leading flu experts. Officials at U.N. missions in Geneva also said they expected the imminent announcement of a pandemic.
WHO spokesman Thomas Abraham said only that the emergency meeting began at noon in Geneva and WHO member nations would be informed of the result. WHO Director-General Margaret Chan was holding a press conference at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT, noon EDT).
“It is likely in light of sustained community transmission in countries outside of North America — most notably in Australia — that level 6 will be declared,” Scotland’s Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon told Scottish lawmakers, adding it would be Thursday.
Indonesian health minister Siti Fadilah Supari said she had been notified by WHO that “today will be declared to be phase 6.”
Phase 6 is WHO’s highest alert level and means that a swine flu pandemic is under way. The last pandemic — the Hong Kong flu of 1968 — killed about 1 million people. Ordinary flu kills about 250,000 to 500,000 people each year.
Since the new flu strain — dubbed A(H1N1) — first emerged in Mexico and the United States in April, it has spread to 74 countries around the globe. On Wednesday, WHO reported 27,737 cases including 141 deaths. The agency has stressed that most cases are mild and require no treatment, but the fear is that a rash of new infections could overwhelm hospitals and health authorities — especially in poorer countries.
The long-awaited pandemic announcement is scientific confirmation that a new flu virus has emerged and is quickly circling the globe. It will trigger drugmakers to speed up production of a swine flu vaccine and prompt governments to devote more money to containing the virus.
In May, several countries urged WHO not to declare a pandemic, fearing it would spark mass panic.
Fear has already gripped Argentina, where so many people worried about swine flu flooded into hospitals this week that emergency health services in the capital have collapsed. Last month, a bus arriving in Argentina from Chile was stoned by people who thought a passenger on it had swine flu. Chile has the most swine flu cases in South America.
In Hong Kong, the government on Thursday ordered all kindergartens and primary schools closed for two weeks after a dozen students tested positive for swine flu.
In Australia, swine flu cases jumped to more than 1,000 on Monday and reached 1,260 by late Wednesday.
WHO says its pandemic announcement would not mean the situation was worsening, since no mutations have been detected in the virus to show it is getting more deadly.
In Edinburgh, Sturgeon told lawmakers that a WHO announcement means countries should immediately activate their pandemic plans.
“A move to level 6 is not a verdict on the severity of the virus,” she said. “It simply means that the extent of global spread now fulfills the definition of a pandemic.”