GENEVA (Reuters) - The H1N1 flu pandemic appears to be easing, but a third wave of infections could yet strike, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday.
“Pandemic infections are occurring in many countries but overall the pattern is decreasing,” Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s top flu expert, said at the start of a week-long meeting of the organisation’s Executive Board.
He warned, however, that a new wave of infections could hit the northern hemisphere in late winter or early spring, saying: “This is probably the biggest speculation. We simply do not know.”
The H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, emerged last April and caused the first influenza pandemic in 40 years.
It initially sparked widespread concern about antiviral and vaccine supplies, especially in developing countries, but many nations have cut back their vaccine orders recently because the pandemic has not turned out as deadly as originally feared.
WHO director-general Margaret Chan told the meeting that the effects of the pandemic had been moderate and were probably closer to outbreaks experienced in 1957 and 1968 rather than the far more deadly 1918 version.
The 1918 pandemic, known as the Spanish flu, swept around the world at the end of World War One, killing some 40-50 million people.
Chan said H1N1 appeared to be easing in the northern hemisphere, but cautioned that it was too soon to say what would happen once the southern hemisphere entered winter and the virus became more infectious.
Fukuda said the majority of people infected with H1N1 recovered without complications or special treatment, but children were being hospitalised at about twice the rate of adults.
Most deaths occurred in people with underlying conditions, including pregnancy, asthma, heart or lung disease, or diabetes. A total of 265 million doses of the vaccine had been distributed and 175 million of those administered to people, Fukuda said.
Chan, a former health director of Hong Kong, said nearly 14,000 official deaths had been reported by more than 200 countries since the virus emerged in North America last April.
But it will take at least 1-2 years after the pandemic ends to establish the true toll and WHO experts say the actual death rate could be much higher than the number of laboratory-confirmed cases so far.
Chan defended her organisation against accusations from some politicians that it exaggerated the dangers of the virus under pressure from drug companies.
“I believe we would all rather see a moderate pandemic with ample supplies of vaccine than a severe pandemic with inadequate vaccine,” she said.
Her United Nations agency has announced that it will launch an evaluation of how it handled the pandemic crisis and Chan said it would “withstand this scrutiny.”
A committee including independent experts will start to review the response to the pandemic of the agency and global community by May and present initial findings to health ministers that month.
This would include a review of the WHO’s pandemic alert scale and whether that should be broadened to reflect the severity of an attack as well as its geographical spread.
Sir Liam Donaldson, Britain’s chief medical officer, dismissed criticism the pandemic was exaggerated.
“It is extremely important that none of us be intimidated by these criticisms and become complacent,” Donaldson told the board. “This virus will drift and produce more serious outbreaks and deaths over time.
Editing by Noah Barkin