What is a "Phase Five" swine flu threat?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The World Health Organization has raised its pandemic threat level to Phase Five. What does that mean? The BBC's Matt McGrath explains the connection between the threat level and international caution.
"They’re hoping if they can get this shut down until the 5th of May or so they will be able to stop any further spread of the disease in their country and be able to effectively, if not shut it out, at least weaken its sufficiently to be able to curtail the deaths."
—BBC reporter Matt McGrath on the spread of swine flu in Mexico

Click through for a transcript.

Todd Zwillich: We want to get an update now on the global spread of the H1N1 swine flu. Not officially a pandemic, but we want to get the latest on it. Joining us on the line is Matt McGrath, he’s a science reporter for the BBC, he’s in London. Matt, are you there?

Matt McGrath: I am indeed.

Todd Zwillich: BBC World Service, forgive me. Matt, thanks for joining us. Matt, the WHO raised its threat level to five I believe yesterday or early this morning. Can you explain what that means, what the implications are?

Matt McGrath: The implications are that the WHO think that we are on the verge of a global pandemic and this is a strong signal to the governments of the world and the people of the world that this is the case and we should be prepared. And they want the governments of the world to put into place and put into practice their pandemic preparedness plans right now. And they want people, companies, anti-viral companies to start ramping up their productions of anti-viral medications and people will start thinking about vaccines and how that might develop. So it’s a very kind of early warning, a late warning if you’d like, and a serious one too.

Todd Zwillich: Well you mentioned vaccines. I want to ask you about that quickly. We have the ability to make vaccines fairly efficiently in this country, but it takes months. Four or five months at the best. What is the world situation in vaccines for places like Mexico, other places that are affected? How quickly…what is the best case scenario that they can get H1N1 vaccine on line?

Matt McGrath: The best case scenario would be probably six months. Nobody can…maybe four months at a real push. The difficulty here isn’t really the production of the vaccine and the sequencing of the genes, that all can be done quite quickly. The real difficulty is do you make that decision now? Do you say, put all our bets on this virus being the pandemic? Because if you stop production of seasonal vaccine or if you interfere with that in any way at all, then lots of people who die, who might be saved by a regular seasonal vaccine could die because they wouldn’t be protected against regular flu?

Todd Zwillich: Isn’t there still an opportunity to mix the H1N1 into the seasonal flu vaccine for next year?

Matt McGrath: There is. There is definitely an opportunity to do that. But, again, it’s a critical decision. Because we do not know what the efficacy and the safety implications of that might be. I think scientists are a lot less keen on mixing another virus into this mixture than they are on developing a single shot, if you’d like, when we know if this is going to be the pandemic or not.

Todd Zwillich: Right. And then the downside to that is, it’s hard enough getting people to get one flu shot, getting them to get two might be more difficult. I want to ask you, the CDC says we have 91 confirmed cases in the U.S., but in Mexico it’s more severe, about 2,500 confirmed cases. President Calderon there has been on TV asking citizens to be extremely vigilant and urging them to stay home. What do you make of that advice? Is that good advice in this case? Does it risk spreading panic?

Matt McGrath: I don’t think it will risk spreading panic. The president was keen to say that the safest place was to be at home. He’s technically right, that is a very safe place to be. Mexico, they’ve been pointing out, that they feel that not necessarily that it’s peaked in their country, but they’ve had a less intense increase in the number of new cases coming on in the last couple of days, which may mean nothing, but it may be significant as well. So they’re hoping if they can get this shut down until the 5th of May or so they will be able to stop any further spread of the disease in their country and be able to effectively, if not shut it out, at least weaken its sufficiently to be able to curtail the deaths.

Todd Zwillich: Alright, well let’s hope that that deceleration is meaningful and that Mexico and the United States gets some reprieve over the summer to give us some time to prepare for October when flu season comes back. Matt McGrath, science reporter for the BBC World Service, thanks for the update, we appreciate it.


Matt McGrath

Hosted by:

Femi Oke and Todd Zwillich

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