GENEVA ? The World Health Organization declared a swine flu pandemic Thursday ? the first global flu epidemic in 41 years ? as infections in the United States, Europe, Australia, South America and elsewhere climbed to nearly 30,000 cases.
The long-awaited pandemic announcement is scientific confirmation that a new flu virus has emerged and is quickly circling the globe. WHO will now ask drugmakers to speed up production of a swine flu vaccine, which it said would available after September. The declaration will also prompt governments to devote more money toward efforts to contain the virus.
WHO chief Dr. Margaret Chan made the announcement Thursday after the U.N. agency held an emergency meeting with flu experts. Chan said she was moving to phase 6 ? the agency's highest alert level ? which means a pandemic, or global epidemic, is under way.
"The world is moving into the early days of its first influenza pandemic in the 21st century," Chan told reporters. "The virus is now unstoppable."
"However, we do not expect to see a sudden and dramatic jump in the number of severe and fatal infections," she added.
On Thursday, WHO said 74 countries had reported 28,774 cases of swine flu, including 144 deaths. Chan described the danger posed by the virus as "moderate."
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.
Still, about half of the people who have died from swine flu were previously young and healthy ? people who are not usually susceptible to flu. Swine flu is also crowding out regular flu viruses. Both features are typical of pandemic flu viruses.
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.
Swine flu is also continuing to spread during the start of summer in the northern hemisphere. Normally, flu viruses disappear with warm weather, but swine flu is proving to be resilient.
"What this declaration does do is remind the world that flu viruses like H1N1 need to be taken seriously," said Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, warning that more cases could crop up in the fall.
"We need to start preparing now in order to be ready for a possible H1N1 immunization campaign starting in late September," she said in a statement from Washington.
Chan said WHO was now recommending that flu vaccine makers start making swine flu vaccine. Drug giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC said they could start large-scale production of pandemic vaccine in July but that it would take several months before large quantities would be available.
Glaxo spokesman Stephen Rea said the company's first doses of vaccine would be reserved for countries who had ordered it in advance, including Belgium, Britain and France. He said the company would also donate 50 million doses to WHO for poor countries.
Pascal Barollier, a spokesman for Sanofi-Aventis, said they were also working on a pandemic vaccine but WHO had not yet asked them to start producing mass quantities of it.
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