US President Barack Obama has signed a proclamation declaring 2009 H1N1 swine flu a national emergency, the White House said on Saturday.
The proclamation, which Obama signed on Friday night, will make it easier for US medical facilities to handle a surge in flu patients by allowing the waiver of some requirements of Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health insurance programs as needed, the White House said in a statement.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday that H1N1 swine flu has become widespread in 46 of the 50 US states, a level comparable to the peak of ordinary flu seasons but far earlier and with more waves of infection expected.
The White House statement said the declaration was intended to prepare the country in case of "a rapid increase in illness that may overburden health care resources" and was similar to disaster declarations issued before hurricanes hit coastal areas.
Seasonal flu normally peaks sometime between late November and early March.
Swine flu has hit young adults and children the hardest, while seasonal flu normally is more dangerous for people over age 65. H1N1 has killed more than 1,000 Americans and put more than 20,000 in the hospital in the United States since it emerged earlier this year, the CDC said. But health officials are quick to note that the actual number of cases cannot be measured.