Scale for Flu Warnings Overly Simplistic, Countries Tell WHO

Jon is a staff writer for Science.

The phasing system for pandemic influenza needs fixing, representatives of several countries told Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), at the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, today.

On 29 April, WHO announced a phase 5 alert about the swine flu outbreak, one level short of a full-scale pandemic. But the alert has yet to move to phase 6 because WHO says no country outside of North America has experienced spread of the new H1N1 virus in a community. Critics have noted that this phasing system does not take into account the severity of the disease, and that the definitions of “community spread” are not clear. At a “high-level consultation,” representatives from member countries said they wanted a more “nuanced” system, WHO spokesperson Thomas Abraham told ScienceInsider, that took severity of disease and other factors into account.

Although Slyvie Briand of WHO’s influenza program said at a 13 May press conference that a “severity index” for flu "is not very helpful," a committee there has been looking carefully at the possibility of creating one for the past year, says Abraham.

As of this morning Geneva time, WHO said 39 countries had reported 8480 confirmed cases of swine flu. The United States now has 5123 confirmed cases, more than 200 of which have been hospitalized. Anne Schuchat, interim deputy director for science and public health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a press conference this morning that the virus is still spreading rapidly in the country. “The H1N1 is not going away, despite what you may have heard,” she said.

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