Prophecy in today's headlines

WHO Says H1N1 Could Infect Two Billion Worldwide

The World Health Organization says as many as two billion people could be infected by the new H1N1 virus, if the current outbreak continues to spread.

WHO flu chief Keiji Fukuda made the comment Thursday at the daily WHO news conference in Geneva, not as a prediction, but as an observation about flu pandemics.

In previous pandemics, Fukuda said, one-third of the world’s population gets infected. So with a world population of six billion people, it’s “reasonable” to expect two billion infections, he said.

That doesn’t mean any pandemic that might be declared of this virus would be severe and cause as many deaths as the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which killed about 70 million people.

It may be more like the the last flu pandemic, the Hong Kong Flu in 1968, which was considered mild by pandemic terms. Only about one million people globally died of that flu, caused by a new strain of H3N2. That compares to the estimated 500,000 people who die around the world every year from seasonal flu.

Fukuda said it is impossible at this point to say whether a H1N1 pandemic would be mild or severe.

Last week, the WHO raised its flu pandemic alert to Phase 5, one step short of a pandemic. On Thursday, Fukuda said the H1N1 virus is not yet spreading in a sustained way outside North America, so the pandemic level will remain at 5.

“We remain at Phase 5. That is not changed,” Fukuda told reporters.


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