GENEVA, July 24, 2009 (AFP) - Swine flu has spread to nearly every corner of the globe, the World Health Organisation said Friday, admitting it was still unknown how the virus would mutate in the northern hemisphere's winter.
With the death toll still rising rapidly and countries rushing out new ways to check the spread of A(H1N1), the United Nations agency said it was only a matter of time before the pandemic which began in March affected every country.
"The spread of this virus continues, if you see 160 out of 193 WHO member states now have cases, so we are nearing almost 100 percent but not quite yet," WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said at the organisation's Geneva headquarters.
Hartl added that the A(H1N1) virus, which the WHO declared a pandemic in June, has resulted in around 800 deaths. Earlier this week, the agency had put the figure at more than 700.
Most of the deaths have been concentrated in the Americas, with the United States, Argentina and Mexico the three countries to have recorded the highest number of fatalities.
|French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin (C) presents a mask to French Prime Minister Francois Fillon (R) as they visit a pharmacy in Limay, west of Paris on July 24, 2009 (AFP photo)|
The crisis has prompted governments and corporations to stockpile anti-virals with Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche reporting that sales of Tamiflu soared 203 percent in the first six months of 2009.
Argentine President Cristina Kirchner on Friday urged that patents not be used in producing a swine flu vaccine -- arguing that such a move could save millions of lives.
Using patent rights to preserve an economic advantage in this case "would condemn millions of people to death," Kirchner argued at a Mercosur summit.
She said it would be "highly desirable" for the WHO to waive the normal patent laws that protect pharmaceutical companies in the face of the pandemic.
In Britain, Europe's hardest-hit country, around 30 people have been killed and fears of the disease spreading have led authorities in India, China, Singapore and Egypt to quarantine at least 160 Britons, according to the foreign office in London.
Meanwhile Japan's health ministry announced that its number of cases had topped 5,000.
And researchers in New Zealand said that up to 79 percent of the population could become infected, although only two-thirds of those may show symptoms.
Health experts have long warned the infections seen so far represent the tip of the iceberg and the situation is likely to worsen dramatically when the northern hemisphere enters the traditional flu season at the end of the year.
Hartl warned there remained many unknowns about the virus, adding that it was unclear how the virus would mutate at the height of the flu seasons given that it broke out in the northern hemisphere's spring.
"There are many questions to which we don't have the answer."
The WHO has found, however, from data from Canada, Chile, Japan, Britain and the United States that the majority of cases are occurring "in younger people, with the median age reported to be 12 to 17 years," the health agency said in a statement.
"As the disease expands broadly into communities, the average age of the cases is appearing to increase slightly.
"This may reflect the situation in many countries where the earliest cases often occurred as school outbreaks but later cases were occurring in the community."
Britain, where 100,000 new cases were diagnosed last week, launched an Internet and phone service Thursday to help people identify symptoms and order drugs. The website recorded around 9.3 million hits an hour on its first day.
France is also struggling to cope with the crisis and has now told patients with flu symptoms not to check into hospital or call the emergency services but to contact their normal family doctor.
Elsewhere in Europe, Spanish authorities reported the country's fifth death linked to swine flu.
A senior Vatican health official said the crisis could lead to a suspension of general audiences with the pope, which are attended by thousands of pilgrims from around the world each week.