WHO Director Margaret Chan’s voice was steady and quiet this afternoon. as she said some fearful words: “I have decided to raise the level of influenza pandemic alert from Phase 4 to Phase 5.” But Chan, like the other women managing our national response to this crisis, was less fearful than practical. Reuters reports:

“The world is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history,” Chan said. “For the first time in history we can track the pandemic in real time.”

In Mexico up to 159 people have died and about 1,300 more are being tested. In the United States a 22-month-old boy has died in Texas while on a visit from Mexico.

According to the WHO’s pandemic flu response guidelines, a Phase 5 alert is called when there is sustained human-to-human spread of the virus in at least two countries in one region.

After the first swine flu death occurred in Mexico and the number of U.S. cases approached 100, Chan and the other women we noted Monday kept working on coordinating responses to the epidemic.  And today they gained  a new partner, in the form of Kathleen Sebelius, the newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.

As the Senate considered Sebelius’ confirmation, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) declared that the threat of a flu pandemic “made it urgent to confirm Ms. Sebelius so President Obama has in place a strong secretary of health.” And as Shelagh Murray dryly notes in the Washington Post, “GOP procedural objections faded with the recent outbreak of swine flu and the threat of a global pandemic. Sebelius was confirmed on a 65-31 vote.” The New York Times adds that Sebelius is also suiting up for the upcoming negotiations on health care reform:

Ms. Sebelius, a former state insurance commissioner, is expected to be an advocate for consumers in negotiating with Congress on legislation to rein in health costs and expand coverage. A former president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, Ms. Sebelius is an expert on insurance regulation, which is sure to be a focus of the legislation that Congressional Democrats hope to pass this year.

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