The World Health Organisation yesterday warned that swine flu was causing unusually serious levels of infection among Inuits in Canada, as it geared up to formally announce a global pandemic.
Keiji Fukuda, the agency’s assistant director-general, said a “larger number than expected” of young Inuit people was being hospitalised, in a trend that raised the prospect that the virus may have a more severe impact on some groups of people, similar to the experience in Mexico.
The authorities in Manitoba in Canada confirmed they had brought in extra ventilators and specialists to study the disease as they confirmed a “surge” in people requiring intensive care. They confirmed more than 40 H1N1 cases to date, the majority among those of aboriginal descent.
The trend could indicate a genetic susceptibility of Inuit peoples, who have been badly affected by past flu pandemics, as well as their relative economic and social deprivation. It may trigger concerns about a strong impact in some other poorer parts of the world as the virus spreads.
The developments came as Mr Fukuda indicated that the WHO was “really getting very close” to announcing its highest level pandemic phase, with any remaining delay caused primarily by the need to prepare countries and the general public about the meaning of its “phase 6”.
In a media teleconference, Mr Fukuda said the WHO was keen to avoid “misunderstanding” if it called a pandemic, which could spark panic and inappropriate actions such as travel restrictions or animal culling.
The decision to delay comes in spite of the fact that the agency has recorded more than 26,563 confirmed cases of H1N1 in 73 countries, including 140 deaths, with widespread infection in Australia as well as the Americas.
Under its existing criteria, widespread transmission in two geographical regions between local people – rather than among those returning from another infected region – should be sufficient to trigger its highest level of alert.
After pressure from a number of countries last month at a summit in Asia and at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, the WHO agreed to re-examine its method of assessing a pandemic after the spread of the virus suggested that its severity was relatively mild.
Mr Fukuda said it would not change its definition of phase 6, but would supplement it with a clarification on the severity of the infection. “It’s a matter of making sure we are as prepared as possible,” he said.