Geneva: The top World Health Organization official in charge of the H1N1 flu pandemic hinted that the virus could infect as many as 20 to 40% of the global population, or more than 1 billion people, in a year or two.
The global tally of confirmed and reported H1N1 cases as of on Wednesday was 175,785, including 1,116 deaths, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
In an interview with Kyodo News yesterday, Keiji Fukuda, acting assistant director general of the UN agency, said it is impossible to give a precise figure but past pandemics show that at least a third of the population may become infected in a year and whether it is 20% or 40%, it would not make much of a difference.
“It is reasonable to make a summary that in past pandemics, over a one-year period, approximately a third, perhaps more, of the population will become infected,” he said, adding that looking at the matter over a two-year period is practical.
“The final infection levels in different countries will probably vary...But I think that really, the difference between 20%, 30% or 40% is not so different. They are high percentages and they just tell us that in a pandemic situation, you can expect large numbers of people to develop infection,” he said.
It was Fukuda’s first exclusive interview with Japanese media organization since the new influenza broke out in April. The WHO declared the situation a pandemic, or a global epidemic, in June by raising the alert level to the highest phase 6.
“The focus is what steps can we take to reduce serious illnesses? It is not so much on what is a projected number,” he said.
He predicted that infections will continue to spread in the next several months “not just from country to country ...but within countries.”
In terms of regions, North America and South America have been the most affected of all the regions around the world, and the trend “continues to be true,” he said.
Differing from seasonal influenza, infections have spread even in summer in the Northern Hemisphere, partly because people are not immune to the new virus, he said.
Asked if school closures may help, particularly at the end of summer vacations in the Northern Hemisphere, Fukuda said they “are not going to slow the movement of viruses, but what it may do is, provide time for the health system to be able to meet the numbers of ill people.”
Fukuda was appointed assistant director general for health security and environment ad interim at the WHO in March.