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WHO Raises Flu Pandemic to Highest Level

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Associated Press: The World Health Organization declared a swine flu pandemic Thursday -- the first global flu epidemic in 41 years -- as infections in the United States, Europe, Australia, South America and elsewhere climbed to nearly 30,000 cases.

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The long-awaited pandemic announcement is scientific confirmation that a new flu virus has emerged and is quickly circling the globe. WHO will now ask drugmakers to speed up production of a swine flu vaccine. The declaration will also prompt governments to devote more money toward efforts to contain the virus.

WHO chief Dr. Margaret Chan made the announcement Thursday after the U.N. agency held an emergency meeting with flu experts. Chan said she was moving the world to phase 6 -- the agency's highest alert level -- which means a pandemic, or global epidemic, is under way.

"The world is moving into the early days of its first influenza pandemic in the 21st century," Chan told reporters. "The (swine flu) virus is now unstoppable."

"However, we do not expect to see a sudden and dramatic jump in the number of severe and fatal infections," she added.

On Thursday, WHO said 74 countries had reported 28,774 cases of swine flu, including 144 deaths. Chan described the danger posed by the virus as "moderate."

The agency has stressed that most cases are mild and require no treatment, but the fear is that a rash of new infections could overwhelm hospitals and health authorities -- especially in poorer countries.

Still, about half of the people who have died from swine flu were previously young and healthy -- people who are not usually susceptible to flu. Swine flu is also crowding out regular flu viruses. Both features are typical of pandemic flu viruses.

"We believe this pandemic, at least in its early days, will be of moderate severity," Chan said, adding "it is prudent to anticipate a bleaker picture as the virus spreads to area with limited resources, poor health care and a high prevalence of underlying health problems."

The last pandemic -- the Hong Kong flu of 1968 -- killed about 1 million people. Ordinary flu kills about 250,000 to 500,000 people each year.

The WHO chief also cautioned that countries already hit by swine flu should prepare for a "second wave" of cases.

"When you're over with the first wave, start preparing for the future," Chan said.

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