Flu pandemic would overwhelm U.S.

By SARA SARGENT   |   Oct. 2, 2008 at 12:50 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 2 (UPI) -- In the case of an influenza pandemic, the U.S. healthcare system would be inadequately prepared to meet the needs of an infected population, according to a report released this week by federal auditors.

The report, published by the Government Accountability Office, criticizes the Department of Health and Human Services' current influenza pandemic preparedness, noting concerns about ineffective treatment dispensation techniques and a lack of organization related to mobilization efforts.

"HHS has made a lot of progress in preparedness planning, but it still needs to continue actions and finalize some of the guidelines necessary for state and local health," GAO spokeswoman Marcia Crosse said.

The GAO recommends that HHS, the governmental body responsible for overseeing health services nationwide, improve guidance to help officials react more effectively during an outbreak.

In a pandemic situation, the government relies on people at the local and community levels to dispense limited supplies of antiviral medications and to handle non-pharmaceutical interventions. That includes isolating sick individuals and quarantining those exposed to the virus.

"How would your business function? How would you hold school?" Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman Von Roebuck said. "There has been a lot of work with those issues in addition to how we can protect ourselves. It's the local communities that will play the crucial role. We see them as being key and want to help them as much as possible."

When it comes to pandemics, experts worry about a repeat of the 1918-1919 pandemic, or the "Spanish flu," which infected approximately 500 million people worldwide.

Crosse said there would not be enough staffed hospital beds or supplies in the United States to deal with an outbreak on par with the Spanish flu.

Although vaccines are currently available for certain strains of influenza, a pandemic occurs in cases where a new strain is introduced to the population. Any novel strain that has not yet circulated widely among humans could become widespread because people have not developed antibodies to the infection and scientists have not developed treatments.

The GAO estimates that, in the midst of a crisis, a pandemic vaccine could take 20 to 23 weeks to develop. Normally, in an unaccelerated, non-crisis situation, a vaccine takes six months to develop.

During a pandemic, HHS would distribute pre-pandemic vaccines to citizens pegged as members of the "critical workforce," which could include healthcare workers and law enforcement officials. As batches of the pandemic vaccine then became available, they would be distributed to more civilians based on their ages and occupations.

The GAO's research into this issue was spurred by concerns in Congress and in the healthcare community about the possibility of an influenza epidemic. These concerns were raised in early 2005 after the avian influenza virus, commonly known as "bird flu," broke out in Southeast Asia. However, the GAO has been suggesting since 2000 that HHS needs to do more to improve its influenza pandemic preparedness.

The GAO's findings, which are based on government documents, interviews with experts and conversations with HHS representatives, were directed to the Senate Health, Labor and Education Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee.

HHS did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.


(Medill news service)

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