GENEVA - The World Health Organization said yesterday that a spike in swine-flu cases in Australia may push it to finally announce the first flu pandemic in 41 years. It also expressed concern about an unusual rise in severe illness from the disease in Canada.

WHO's flu-chief Keiji Fukuda said that the agency wanted to avoid "adverse effects" if it announces a global outbreak of swine flu. Fukuda said that people might panic or that governments might take inappropriate actions if WHO declares a pandemic.

Some flu experts think that the world already is in a pandemic and that WHO has caved in to country requests that a declaration be postponed.

"On the surface of it, I think we are in phase 6," or a pandemic, said Margaret Chan, WHO's director-general.

Chan said that it was important to verify the reports that the virus is becoming established outside North America before declaring a pandemic. "The decision to make a phase 6 announcement is a heavy responsibility, a responsibility that I will take very seriously, and I need to be convinced that I have indisputable evidence," she said.

Chan said that she would hold a conference call with governments today in order to verify some of the reports she has received before making a formal announcement.

WHO said that the virus has infected 26,563 people in 73 countries and caused 140 deaths. Most of the cases have been in North America, but Australia also has seen a sharp increase in recent days. *