The World Health Organisation (WHO) has made the decision to raise the level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 4 to phase 5 – a strong indication that it believes a pandemic is imminent.

According to WHO director-general Margaret Chan, the decision was based on assessment of all available information, and following several expert consultations.

People wearing surgical masks In an official statement, Dr Chan claimed that countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans and remain on high alert for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia.

She said: “At this stage, effective and essential measures include heightened surveillance, early detection and treatment of cases, and infection control in all health facilities.

“This change to a higher phase of alert is a signal to governments, to ministries of health and other ministries, to the pharmaceutical industry and the business community that certain actions should now be undertaken with increased urgency, and at an accelerated pace.”

A phase 5 pandemic alert is characterised by human-to-human spread ofthe virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While mostcountries will not be affected, it is a strong signal that a pandemicis imminent and that the time to finalise the organisation,communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures isshort.

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) maintains that no cases ofanimal infection have been confirmed within the zones where casesof human infection have been detected. Despite this, Egypt has already begun the process of slaughtering thousand of animals. Egyptian parliament voted yesterday (April 29) to slaughter all pigs in the country – said to be in the region of 300,000 animals – to to avoid any possible chance of an outbreak.

H1N1 not present in UK pigs In the UK, DEFRA emphasised that the virus has not been isolated from pigs and there have been no reports of unusual disease in pig herds.

Environment secretary Hilary Benn said: “The UK and some other members of the European Union undertake routinesurveillance to help detect the presence of animal diseases notnormally present in the EU and to identify any change in the prevalenceof diseases that do occur.

“Results of our surveillance suggest that this variant of H1N1 does not appear to be present in pigs in the UK or anywhere else in the EU. However we are taking this developing situation very seriously and will maintain our surveillance effort, keeping the public and industry informed of any developments.”

Despite this, UK pig breeders are concerned that the outbreak may seeconsumers avoid pork products in the same way they avoidedpoultry after the avian flu outbreak.

Leaflets containing advice about the basic steps people can take toavoid infection will be sent to every household in the country over thenext few days.

LATEST UPDATE (UK): Two cases of human-to-human transfer of the swine flu virus have beenconfirmed in the UK – one in Scotland and anotherin the South West of England. There are now thirteen confirmed cases ofswine flu in the UK. A further 642 cases of suspected swine flu are under investigation.

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