The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the first global pandemic in 41 years, raising the swine flu alert from phase 5 to phase 6, the highest level. The formal declaration of swine flu as a pandemic was issued after an emergency meeting with experts on the spread of the virus.

Swine flu (H1N1) is circling the globe, with increased cases reported in the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Chile, Japan and other countries. Officials say that designating swine flu as a pandemic does not necessarily mean that the virus is causing more severe illness or more deaths. The current pandemic seems to be moderate, causing mild illness in most of the people who become infected.

One factor that may have influenced the move to a level 6 alert is the fact that swine flu seems to be more common than normal seasonal influenza in the southern hemisphere. Declaring a level 6 pandemic will trigger drugmakers to speed up production of a swine flu vaccine. The WHO is urging governments to devote more money toward fighting swine flu, but not to restrict travel or trade.

"At this early stage, the pandemic can be characterized globally as being moderate in severity," WHO said in the statement. "(We) remain in close dialogue with influenza vaccine manufacturers."

There have been over 13,000 cases of the swine flu confirmed in the United States including at least 27 deaths. The U.S. government has already been treating swine flu as a pandemic, so its actions are not likely to change.

The last flu pandemic was Hong Kong flu in 1968, which killed about 1 million people. The swine flu virus may be linked to water pollution at a hog operation in Mexico, but the CDC says it is safe to continue eating pork.

Flu expert professor John Oxford told the BBC that people shouldn’t panic, as the outbreak is milder than others seen in the past century.

"It is global and fulfilling the requirements of a pandemic but I don't think anyone should worry because nothing drastic has happened between yesterday and today."

(MNN homepage photo: DNY59/iStockphoto)