Media Briefing: Influenza A (H1N1)
(Conducted by Dr. Jon K. Andrus, Pan American Health Organization, May 18, 2009)

Good afternoon. Welcome again to members of the press corps on the line, and thank you for taking the time to listen to today's briefing by the Pan American Health Organization on the Influenza A (H1N1) epidemic.
  • Twenty five days ago, PAHO activated its Emergency Operations Center in response to the Influenza A(H1N1) outbreak. Two days later the Director General of WHO announced this outbreak represented a public health emergency of global concern.

  • Staff from PAHO, WHO, the WHO Collaborating Centers, Ministries of Health, and folks from all aspects of civil society are working very hard, almost around the clock, to monitor the evolution of the outbreak and to understand what we are seeing.

  • Here is what we understand:

    • The H1N1 virus is new.
    • Being a new virus, the global threat is real and it is serious.
    • Currently, the virus appears to spread more rapidly than regular seasonal influenza virus.
    • Preliminary evidence shows that the H1N1 virus may be more lethal than seasonal influenza. However, seasonal influenza is "no walk in the park", and is also serious, killing approximately ¼ to ½ million people per year.
    • In comparison to seasonal influenza, which causes more serious illness in the very young and the elderly, it appears that this H1N1 virus has a higher preference for young, healthy adults.

  • Given this background, what do we think is going to happen?

  • We really don't know. It could die out, which would be great. But most experts, including ourselves, do not believe this will be the case. And so this leaves essentially two other options.

  • It may continue along its current lines, spreading globally and causing a mild pandemic, similar to that of the1957-58 pandemic, which killed 1 to 4 million people worldwide.

  • Or, it could go the way of the much more serious 1918 pandemic, in which many millions died.

  • So far the results of molecular studies show the virus to have none of the genetic markers of the highly lethal bird flu virus.

  • As we have said, the virus is infectious by the droplet route of transmission, which is why we have been emphasizing what individuals and families can do to protect themselves (covering coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues, frequent hand washing, and social distancing).

  • People appear to be contagious 1 day before the onset of their fever and other symptoms, and up to 5 or 7 days after the onset of symptoms.

  • The virus is still sensitive to olseltamivir. We are hoping that the resistance we see with the seasonal flu strains does not find its way into H1N1 viral genetic material.

  • As we speak, work is being conducted that could make a vaccine available in 4-6 months.

  • However, knowing what we know about global vaccine production capacity, putting priority on H1N1 vaccine production will reduce our capacity to make regular seasonal flu vaccine. So, we must be able say with relative confidence that more lives will be saved if the H1N1 vaccine is given a higher priority than seasonal vaccine. There will need to be a great deal of flexibility factored into any decision.

  • Again, we should highlight the need for continued monitoring, surveillance, and preparation.

  • We also know that this epidemic will take the greatest toll on the poor, who are the most vulnerable. We need to provide all the support we can to poorer countries to help them prepare and respond.

  • I'll stop there to field any questions that you may have.

(You can watch this media briefing on PAHO's Webcasts Page)