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Just when you thought it was safe to take off that mask, the World Health Organization steps in and labels the swine flu a pandemic.

From the WSJ:

The World Health Organization declared an H1N1 flu pandemic Thursday — the first global flu epidemic in 41 years — as infections in the United States, Europe, Australia, South America and elsewhere climbed to nearly 30,000 cases.

The long-awaited pandemic announcement is scientific confirmation that a new flu virus has emerged and is quickly circling the globe. WHO will now ask drugmakers to speed up production of an H1N1 flu vaccine. The declaration will also prompt governments to devote more money toward efforts to contain the virus.

WHO chief Dr. Margaret Chan made the announcement Thursday after the U.N. agency held an emergency meeting with flu experts. Dr. Chan said she was moving the world to phase 6 — the agency’s highest alert level — which means a pandemic, or global epidemic, is under way.

“The world is moving into the early days of its first influenza pandemic in the 21st century,” Dr. Chan told reporters. “The (H1N1 flu) virus is now unstoppable.”

On Thursday, WHO said 74 countries had reported 28,774 cases of H1N1 flu, including 144 deaths. Chan described the virus as “moderate.” According to WHO’s pandemic criteria, a global outbreak has begun when a new flu virus begins spreading in two world regions.

The agency has stressed that most cases are mild and require no treatment, but the fear is that a rash of new infections could overwhelm hospitals and health authorities — especially in poorer countries.

Still, about half of the people who have died from H1N1 flu were previously young and healthy — people who are not usually susceptible to flu. H1N1 flu is also crowding out regular flu viruses. Both features are typical of pandemic flu viruses.

If you’re like me you probably thought this was over and done with. We’ll have to see how this plays out but it probably will take a bite out of economic recovery.

And by the way, start washing your hands again.

Source: Pandemic: The Return of H1N1