H1N1 swine flu pandemic officially over

Norma Connolly

The World Health Organization
announced this week that the H1N1 swine flu pandemic is officially over.

Margaret Chan, director general of
the WHO said on Tuesday the world was no longer in phase 6 of the influenza
pandemic alert.

“We are now moving into the
post-pandemic period. The new H1N1 virus has largely run its course,” she said.

She said members of the WHO
Emergency Committee had based its assessment that the pandemic was past on the
global situation, as well as reports from several countries that are currently
experiencing influenza.

The WHO committee reported that
localised outbreaks of H1N1 were still being seen in some parts of the world,
including in New Zealand and India.

“During the pandemic, the H1N1
virus crowded out other influenza viruses to become the dominant virus; this is
no longer the case. Many countries are reporting a mix of influenza viruses,
again as is typically seen during seasonal epidemics,” said Ms Chan.

“Recently published studies
indicate that 20 per cent to 40 per cent of populations in some areas have been
infected by the H1N1 virus and thus have some level of protective immunity.
Many countries report good vaccination coverage, especially in high risk
groups, and this coverage further increases community-wide immunity,” she
added.

In Cayman, H1N1 claimed the life of
one victim – a 31-year-old man, who was a resident of the substance abuse
treatment facility Caribbean Haven. He died at the Cayman Islands Hospital on
20 July and was confirmed to have had the H1N1 influenza virus by a Trinidadian
laboratory on 25 July. Local tests on the patient had initially produced a negative
result for the H1N1 virus.

The vast majority of local cases
had mild symptoms, health officials in Cayman said.

Ten thousand doses of the H1N1
vaccine arrived in Cayman in late January, after a long wait due to
bureaucracy, red tape and a strike by French pharmaceutical company workers. By
the time it arrived in Cayman, demand for the vaccine had already waned in
overseas countries.

The Cayman Islands Health Services
Authority opened a dedicated flu clinic at the hospital in George Town in early
October. The clinic was closed on 1 March as the number of influenza cases
dropped to pre-H1N1 pandemic levels.

At that time, 129 cases had been
confirmed, with the last case reported on 11 January. Those were cases
confirmed by the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre laboratory in Trinidad.

Only a fraction of suspected cases
were passed to the centre and all flu cases that involved temperatures higher
than 100 degrees Fahrenheit and with classic flu symptoms were treated as H1N1
by doctors.

Dr. Keiji Fukuda, special adviser
to the WHO director-general on pandemic influenza said the current number of
laboratory confirmed H1N1 deaths is about 18,500 worldwide.

Ms Chan said danger from the virus
might not yet be over and could still pose a risk to the younger age groups.

She admitted that fears that the
virus would be much more deadly than it turned out to be had borne out.

“Pandemics are unpredictable and
prone to deliver surprises. No two pandemics are ever alike. This pandemic has
turned out to be much more fortunate than what we feared a little over a year
ago.

“This time around we have been
aided by pure good luck; the virus did not mutate during the pandemic to a more
lethal form, widespread resistance to [anti-viral drug] oseltamivir did not
develop. The vaccine proved to be a good match with the circulating viruses and
showed an excellent safety profile, thanks to expansive preparedness and
support from the international community,” she said in a press conference on
Tuesday.

She said that if countries still
had stockpiles of the H1N1 vaccines, they should still be used on patients in
high-risk groups.

The WHO was heavily criticised for
declaring a pandemic in June 2009, but Ms Chan insisted that the organisation
had followed the correct epidemiological and virological criteria and had not
overreacted. “This is a true pandemic and that was the right call,” she said.

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