GENEVA - The World Health Organization is getting close to declaring a full H1N1 influenza pandemic but wants to make sure countries are well prepared for such a move to prevent a panic, its top flu expert said Tuesday.
Keiji Fukuda, acting WHO assistant director-general, voiced concern at the sustained spread of the new strain in countries including more than 1,000 cases in Australia following major outbreaks in North America where it was first detected.
The disease, widely known as swine flu, which has infected over 26,500 people in 73 countries, with 140 deaths, has also spread widely in Britain, Spain and Japan.
Confirmed community spread in a second region beyond North America would trigger moving to phase 6 from the current phase 5 on the WHO's 6-level pandemic alert scale.
Asked whether there was any doubt that a pandemic was under way, Fukuda told a weekly teleconference: We are really getting very close to that.
Fukuda said a decision to declare a pandemic involved more than simply making an announcement. The United Nations agency had to ensure that countries were able to deal with the new situation and also handle any public reaction.
One of the critical issues is that we do not want people to 'over-panic' if they hear that we are in a pandemic situation, Fukuda said.
A very real danger was that hospitals could be overwhelmed by people seeking help when they did not really need it.
Since the new flu strain first appeared, many people have stopped eating pork, pigs have been culled in some countries, trade bans on meat imposed, travelers quarantined and some countries have discussed closing borders.
These are the kinds of potential adverse effects that you can have if you go out without making sure people understand the situation as well as possible, Fukuda said.
(For a WHO note on its pandemic alert scale go to:
(Reporting by Jonathan Lynn and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Richard Balmforth)