WHO says flu pandemic spreading too fast to count

Updated Thu. Jul. 16 2009 2:24 PM ET
CTV.ca News Staff

The World Health Organization said Thursday the H1N1 flu pandemic has been the fastest-moving pandemic ever and that it is now pointless to ask countries to count every case.

The United Nations agency announced Thursday it was revising its requirements so that health authorities in member nations need not report total case counts of the pandemic-grade virus. It would prefer, instead, they report clusters of severe cases or clusters of deaths caused by the virus, as well as unusual illness patterns.

"At this point, further spread of the pandemic, within affected countries and to new countries, is considered inevitable," the agency said in a briefing note, posted on its website.

"The 2009 influenza pandemic has spread internationally with unprecedented speed. In past pandemics, influenza viruses have needed more than six months to spread as widely as the new H1N1 virus has spread in less than six weeks."

The agency said it has become nearly impossible for national health authorities to keep count of cases, and the tracking has been eating away at precious laboratory and health services resources. Moreover, it said, counting cases is no longer helpful in assessing the risk posed by the virus.

The WHO says it too will no longer issue global tables showing numbers of confirmed cases for all countries -- which stood at 94,512 cases with 429 deaths as of its last update on July 6.

While noting that the virus has caused overwhelmingly mild illness that usually resolves itself within a week, the WHO said there is still an ongoing need to closely monitor unusual events.

It advised health authorities to watch for spikes in rates of absenteeism from schools or workplaces, or surges in emergency department visits.

It said it would still like to hear from countries confirming their first cases of the virus, but for those countries with community-wide transmission -- such as Canada -- the focus should shift to tracking unusual illness activity and to monitoring any changes in the virus that may be important for the development of vaccines.