This morning Director-General Margaret Chan (pictured) of the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the threat level of H1N1 flu saying "The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic." Chan said that while there have been relatively few deaths, and many of those cases had pre-existing medical conditions, that things could get worse as it spreads to poorer countries with few resources. In addition, Chan said that this particular virus has never been seen in humans before and that "The virus writes the rules and this one, like all influenza viruses, can change the rules, without rhyme or reason, at any time."

In addition, said Chan, pandemics typically take six to nine months to spread, and that areas where the virus has peaked can expect to see a second wave of infections.

HHS Responds

U.S. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and U.S. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano issued a statement saying that the change in threat level doesn't change what is being done in the U.S. to prepare and respond. "Although we have not seen large numbers of severe cases in this country so far," said Sebelius, "things could possibly be very different in the fall, especially if things change in the Southern Hemisphere, and we need to start preparing now in order to be ready for a possible H1N1 immunization campaign starting in late September."

Napolitano said that the outbreak was seen early on as a pandemic, so the announcement comes as no surprise. The administration is reaching out to state and local government, she said, as well as school districts and the private sector to urge them to modify and update their pandemic plans.

Historical Concerns

The 1918 flu pandemic that killed millions around the world was also a type of H1N1 virus. While the first wave of infection was moderately harmful, the virus mutated and the second wave was much more deadly.

Wayne Hanson  |  Senior Executive Editor, Center For Digital Government