The H1N1 pandemic that started in the spring of 2009 is now officially over, says the World Health Organization (WHO). Speaking from Hong Kong during a teleconference this afternoon, WHO Director Margaret Chan declared that “we are now moving into the post-pandemic period. The new H1N1 virus has largely run its course.”

The decision reflects the unanimous recommendation of WHO’s so-called Emergency Committee, which based its conclusion on recent epidemiological and virological information, in particular from the Southern Hemisphere, where the flu season is in full swing.

Although the new H1N1 is still here and will continue to cause disease, it has become much like any other flu strain, Chan said, no longer causing the vast majority of flu cases nor triggering outbreaks during the summer. Most experts expect the virus will continue circulating as an annual strain, along with another influenza A strain called H3N2 and with influenza B.

On the Emergency Committee’s recommendation, WHO officially declared the pandemic on 11 June 2009, some 3 months after the virus is believed to have claimed its first victims in Mexico. Since then, there have been some 18,500 lab-confirmed deaths from the virus, WHO flu expert Keiji Fukuda told reporters today from Geneva. The real toll is believed to be higher; studies are ongoing to estimate the total number of excess deaths caused by the virus.

Chan again defended her agency’s decision against charges that WHO had overreacted and hyped the threat. WHO has consistently stressed that the pandemic was of “moderate severity,” she said, while warning that the virus caused unusually severe disease in some pregnant women and young adults.

Asked about her own sentiments now that the episode has ended, Chan said: “Do I feel happy? Do I feel tired? I feel both.” She warned that countries should keep up their vigilance, however, and monitor for any unusual behavior by the virus.

WHO has also come under criticism for keeping secret the names of the members of its Emergency Committee, a measure aimed at shielding those experts from undue pressure. Chan said the names will be released today, but so far, they have not appeared on WHO’s HINI Website.

(By Martin Enserin)

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