The World Health Organization warned Tuesday that the world was on the verge of an official swine flu pandemic, saying it was working to prepare countries for raising its alarm to the highest level.
"We are getting very, very close," said Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director-general, noting that in Australia, there was now "a great deal of activity in Victoria at the community level."
AdvertisementUnder the WHO's guidelines, one key criteria for declaring a pandemic would be established community spread in a country outside the first region in which the disease was initially reported, in this case, outside the Americas.
The WHO has so far left its six-level pandemic alert scale unchanged at phase five, signalling that a pandemic is "imminent."
The UN health agency's guidelines had initially focused on the geographical criteria to justify a phase change. However, member states have called on the agency to take other elements, such as severity of the disease into account.
On Tuesday, Fukuda played down the role of severity, saying that "by going to phase six, what this would mean is that the spread of the virus continues and activity has become established in at least two regions in the world.
"It doesn't mean that the severity of the situation has increased," he said.
Australia's swine flu outbreak hit sports events on Tuesday as a national swimming competition was axed and rugby league's first case put fixtures in doubt.
But when asked if the situation in Australia, where 1,211 cases of infections have been recorded, warranted a phase change, Fukuda would only say that the world was "getting very, very close" to a pandemic.
"The declaration of phase changes... is not simply getting up in front of press cameras or making an announcement. It's really a way of preparing the world to deal with the situation," said Fukuda, adding that a "great deal of work has to be done."
This includes ensuring that countries had the information and tools to handle increased numbers of patients as well as to deal with inquiries from the population.
"Right now we feel that the essential steps which should be taken are on the way," he said.
Giving an update on the swine flu situation throughout the world, Fukuda said 26,563 infections including 140 deaths have been reported to the health agency from 73 countries.
Fukuda pointed in particular to the situation in Inuit communities in Canada where "a disproportionate number of serious cases is occurring.
"At this time, we know that a larger number than expected of young Inuit people did develop serious illness and has had to get hospitalised," he said.
Fukuda said he was unable to pinpoint the reasons for the trend.
"We know in past pandemics that Inuit populations were very severely hit, that's why these reports raised such concerns to us," he said.
Around the world on Tuesday, Chinese state media said it now has 100 confirmed cases of swine flu, while Lebanon, Egypt and Italy each reported fresh infections.
Mexico will next month host an international summit on swine flu at the Caribbean beach resort of Cancun.
The European Union's health commissioner Androulla Vassiliou on Tuesday called for a common European strategy on producing and using a swine flu vaccine, emphasising the need to focus on those most vulnerable.
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