Canberra: Australia's swine flu epidemic appears to be peaking after 147 people died with the virus, far fewer than initially expected, a top health official said Friday.
International attention has focused on the pandemic's progress in countries in the southern hemisphere such as Australia, which are experiencing winter and their annual flu season.
Government chief medical officer Jim Bishop said doctors around Australia were reporting fewer patients with flu-like symptoms. There was no sign that the virus has mutated into a more deadly form, he added.
"At the moment, it seems to be reducing and that's a positive sign," Bishop told reporters. "We're hopeful that it's peaking."
He said the death toll was far lower than initial forecasts that more than 3,000 of Australia's 22 million people could die of the virus, he said.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 Australians die each year from seasonal flu, he said.
While all of the 147 victims had swine flu, it is not clear how many were killed by the virus or died from other medical conditions.
Another 420 infected people remain in Australian hospitals, including 86 in intensive care.
"So far, the epidemic has gone as well as we could expect," Bishop said.
But he cautioned that pandemic viruses such as swine flu do not behave like seasonal flu, which mainly strikes during the winter.
While winter in the southern hemisphere ends next week, Australia could experience a resurgence of swine flu at any time, he said.
"If we've learned anything from pandemics, (it's that) they come in out-of-season" they can return at any time," Bishop said.
The government announced last week that it expects to launch a swine flu vaccination program in September, giving the first doses to pregnant women, children considered particularly susceptible and health workers. It is not yet clear whether Australia will be the first country to start vaccinations.
The World Health Organisation has declared swine flu a pandemic and says it killed 1,799 people worldwide as of August 13.