Confounding expectations, an emergency committee of the World Health Organization unanimously recommended Thursday that the H1N1 influenza pandemic remain at the highest level of the agency's alert scale, Phase 6. The committee will confer again in July to reassess its recommendation when data from the winter influenza season in the Southern Hemisphere become available.
"We're still in the pandemic," WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said.
Because of sharp declines in swine flu activity around the world, many observers had expected the 15-member committee of experts, whose members are anonymous, to declare that the pandemic was in its "post-peak" phase, or even in its "post-pandemic" phase, which would mean that the pandemic was over.
But a statement from WHO Director-General Margaret Chan noted that, while "the period of most intense pandemic appears likely to have passed for many parts of the world," activity is continuing in some areas and many people remain vulnerable. The virus is most active in parts of Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, but experts fear a further outbreak.
Many critics have charged the agency with overreacting to the emergence of the virus, particularly because symptoms have generally been mild, but experts continue to warn that a small mutation in the virus could cause it to spread more rapidly or to become more lethal. To date, 18,000 deaths from laboratory-confirmed infections have occurred, but most experts think the true number is several times higher.
-- Thomas H. Maugh II