The World Health Organization has revised its pandemic alert scale this week, right in the midst of a swine flu outbreak. Under the new criteria, a Phase 4 rating indicates human-to-human spread of a virus, a Phase 5 rating indicates human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one region, and a Phase 6 rating indicates a global pandemic with widespread outbreaks.
Interestingly, the WHO is quite aware that swine flu has now spread to Mexico, the United States and Canada, as is evidenced by this statement on their website: The Committee considered available data on confirmed outbreaks of A/H1N1 swine influenza in the United States of America, Mexico, and Canada. The Committee also considered reports of possible spread to additional countries… (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news…)
… and yet, amazingly, the WHO has not yet raised the swine flu alert level to the phase for which it clearly qualifies (Phase 5). After all, hasn’t this swine flu virus already achieved “human-to-human spread into at least two countries in one region?” (Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, by my counting, would qualify as three countries in one region.)
So why is the WHO not following its own well-defined guidelines for categorizing viral outbreaks?
Downplaying the infections
It seems that the decision makers at the WHO, along with Mexico’s health authorities, are working hard to make swine flu appear less dangerous than it really is. Infections are spreading by the day, with new countries found to be infected on a daily basis. The death toll in Mexico City is rising quickly, and the virus is cropping of simultaneously in cities and nations around the globe (a highly unusual spread pattern, historically speaking). Is this not enough to warrant a Phase 5 declaration?
Interestingly, at the same time, the U.S. Dept. of Homeland security has done essentially nothing to restrict air travel from Mexico or to screen arriving passengers for swine flu infections. Sure, they claim to be running a “passive screening” program now, but that only amounts to “DHS personnel on the lookout for sniffles.” It’s hardly a robust screening program like the ones set up in the airports of Asian nations.
Given the behavior of Swine Flu so far, the response of world health authorities to this outbreak seems suspiciously apathetic. I’ve studied all the major pandemic outbreaks since 1918, and I’ve never read about a new, highly-contagious influenza virus appearing almost overnight in eight different countries. That fact alone should be alarming to anyone familiar with infectious disease agents.
Sure, the fatality rate in the U.S. may seem low right now, but it was probably low in Mexico City early on, too. The deaths might start to kick in a week or two later than the original carrier infections. So the fact that the U.S. has so far escaped any swine flu deaths (officially, anyway) may only be a matter of timing, not a measure of actual danger posed by the virus.
With infection numbers rising fast — over 100 students in a single New York City school are now confirmed with the infection — the U.S. is bound to start seeing more severe swine flu cases emerge.
WHO Revises Pandemic Alert Scale: Swine Flu Now Qualifies for Phase 5