, GENEVA, Nov 12 – The World Health Organisation on Thursday called on doctors to use antiviral drugs swiftly on the most vulnerable swine flu patients, to prevent severe cases and avoid swamping hospitals.
WHO clinical expert Niki Shindo said the agency would issue new guidelines targeting three key groups in countries where the A(H1N1) virus is spreading, to avoid severe cases that could kill within a week.
However, Shindo emphasised that the "vast majority" of pandemic swine flu cases were mild and victims recovered within days without the need for treatment or hospitalisation.
"Firstly, people in at-risk groups need to be treated with antivirals as soon as possible when they have flu symptoms, this includes pregnant women, children under two years old, and people with underlying conditions," she said.
The other two groups were people with rapidly worsening symptoms, such as breathing difficulties and high fever for more than three days, while those found with pneumonia should be treated immediately with antivirals and antibiotics.
"I want to stress that people who are not from the at-risk groups… need not take antivirals," Shindo told journalists during a conference call.
"We are not recommending taking antivirals if otherwise healthy people are experiencing only mild illness, or as a preventive measure."
When asked in recent months about the preventive administration of antivirals in some European nations, WHO officials had largely left it up to countries to decide.
The UN health agency refined its guidance after in-depth studies of swine flu cases and clinical treatment found that early administration of drugs like Tamiflu in some instances could avoid potentially fatal severe cases.
"The virus is quite stable, the disease pattern did not change either," Shindo said.
"The reason we are updating now is that we can confidently say now that early antiviral treatment can make a difference in terms of preventing severe illness and death."
Shindo noted that Ukraine, Afghanistan and Mongolia had reported hospitals and clinics being "overwhelmed" by pandemic flu cases.
However, in Ukraine, the proportion of severe cases was less than those found in the southern hemisphere, and people appeared to have been admitted to hospitals there with "milder symptoms than needed" for intensive care, she added.
In Mongolia, pregnant women were "over-represented" amongst hospitalised flu cases, Shindo said, without giving details.
The WHO recently added Ukraine, Afghanistan, Belarus and Azerbaijan to the list of poorer countries receiving deliveries from the agency’s aid stockpile of antiviral drugs.
The global death toll from flu pandemic passed the 6,000 mark last week according to the UN health agency.
The A(H1N1) virus has swept around the world since it was first identified in Mexico and the UNited States in April 2008, spreading into at least 199 countries.
The pandemic is currently surging in the northern hemisphere with the onset of colder weather.