Swine Flu: WHO "Really Very Close" to Using the P Word

So can we call it a pandemic yet? Nope, the World Health Organization said today. Although the A (H1N1) virus has now spread to 76 countries and seems to be spreading briskly in Australia, the agency still has not moved its pandemic alert scale to 6, the highest level. But at a press conference (audio, page loads slowly) today, WHO's flu chief Keiji Fukuda said that the agency is now "really very close" to calling the epidemic a pandemic. It is still working to inform countries exactly what level 6 means and avoid unnecessary panic, he said.

Whether or not the spread of the swine flu virus constitutes a pandemic has been the subject of debate for many weeks. WHO's own definition requires that the virus shows sustained community spread in countries in at least two of its six regions—that is, another region apart from the Americas, where it originated. The virus's spread in Europe and Japan has led some to argue that criterion has already been met.

Now, continuing spread in Australia, where 1051 cases have been confirmed, would seem to end any remaining doubt. Among reporters, many of whom have followed WHO's briefings for 6 weeks, the impatience was palpable today. But once again, Fukuda artfully dodged questions about what exactly will make WHO pull the lever. He hinted, however, that it is now more a matter of communication strategy than anything else. WHO wants to avoid a "blossoming of anxiety" once it moves to level 6, Fukuda said. "One of the critical issues is that we do not want people to over-panic," he added.

Fukuda also weighed in on what the virus—or the pandemic—should be called, admitting that the current name, influenza A (H1N1), is creating confusion. "We are hoping to come up with names that are easy enough to remember and easy enough to use," without stigmatizing countries or triggering panic about pigs or pork, he said. But he didn't say what those names might be.