How It's Done: Keeping Tabs on the Swine Flu

Even as the World Health Organization is on the verge of declaring a pandemic for the first time in 41 years, it’s still smooth sailing for the Swiss-based office.

Aphaluck Bhatiasevi, a communications officer for the WHO, said the organization has a distinct, yet simple way of compiling the number of H1N1 cases from around the world.

Each country has a health agency, or "focal point" (in the U.S. it’s the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and that agency submits the numbers and severity of cases to the WHO, which compiles the information and distributes it to the public.

“The figures may be delayed compared to figures in media,” Bhatiasevi said. “But they are accurate, verified numbers.”

When it comes to raising the pandemic level, the WHO doesn’t look only at how quickly the virus is spreading, but also at whether the majority of cases are mild or severe.

"It's based on the effect the virus has on a healthy person," Bhatiasevi said. “We are closely monitoring the trend to see how the virus is behaving on patients. There are some cases where patients have no flu-like symptoms and some cases with deaths, some cases with severe illness and some cases where the patient has an underlying condition.”

The head of the World Health Organization quizzed health officials from several nations in a conference call Wednesday, asking about a recent spike in swine flu cases that may show the world is already in a global pandemic.

Batiasevi said Director-General Margaret Chan spoke to eight countries that are most affected. She called it an “informal consultation” to generate information on the virus’ pattern.

“From this information, we were able to understand the disease’s attack rates and the group that might be most vulnerable,” Bhatiasevi said. “Currently, we are very close to a pandemic.”

A pandemic is undisputed evidence of sustained community transmission of the virus in more than one WHO region.

More than 26,500 people have been infected with the swine flu virus worldwide, and approximately 140 have died from it.

Many countries have asked the WHO to hold off on such a declaration, fearing their citizens will be alarmed and confused and governments will be pressured to institute costly and often ineffective measures like trade and travel bans.

But the WHO insisted that a pandemic declaration would not mean the situation was worsening, and countries would not need to take new actions. Bhatiasevi said countries should continue to follow the recommended guidelines for level five.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.