As countries in the southern hemisphere brace for their winter flu season, the World Health Organization (WHO) said today that they are closer to declaring H1N1 a global pandemic.

Raising the current pandemic alert level from 5 to 6 would require additional evidence of transmission on two continents that extends “beyond travelers, schools and immediate contacts,” reported The New York Times. But experts believe that the spread is escalating in many countries—including Australia, Britain, Chile, Japan and Spain—and that this upgrade may be imminent.

"We still are waiting for evidence of really widespread community activity in these countries. I think it is fair to say that they are in transition and are not quite there, which is why we are not in phase 6 yet," Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's acting assistant director-general, told reporters at a press conference today.

Whereas there have now been nearly 19,000 cases reported in 64 countries, only 117 deaths have resulted from the H1N1 virus. This has led the WHO to consider adding “three severity notches to the highest marker of 6, so the overall level could reach the peak even if the flu's effects remained moderate, and be adjusted later if the virus caused more serious health problems,” wrote The Washington Post.

Image of H1N1 virus courtesy of Yuki999 via Wikimedia Commons