Influenza Pandemic a Brewing Storm

There will definitely be another influenza pandemic and no government can afford to be caught off-guard, according to World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Lee Jong-wook.

Speaking to ministers of health from throughout the Americas at the Pan American Health Organization’s 46th Directing Council meeting on Tuesday, Dr. Jong-wook cautioned that “forecasts indicate that the political, social and economic costs of such a pandemic will be huge.  Failure to take the threat seriously and prepare appropriately will have catastrophic consequences.”

He called on health ministers to support the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza launched recently by President George Bush at the United Nations.  “Every country must have a national pandemic control plan.  Every country must also have a communications strategy.  It should be ready and able to inform the public about the pandemic, what is happening and what to do,” he said.

Dr. Jong-wook cited past flu epidemics that killed millions of people and noted that the 1957 and 1968 flu pandemics “originated as avian flu viruses.”  There have been outbreaks of the H5N1 avian flu in Asia since 2003 and the World Health Organization warns that the virus could change into a form that spreads easily from person to person.  As people would have no natural immunity, a new influenza virus could cause widespread death, illness, social and economic disruption.

The United Nations Secretary General has appointed Dr. David Nabarro, a senior public health expert at the World Health Organization, to lead coordination of the UN response to avian influenza and a possible human influenza pandemic.  He will be responsible for ensuring that the UN moves forward with efforts to control the current outbreak of avian influenza in Asia, and he will help to coordinate preparations for a potential human influenza pandemic.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) both spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday about the potential pandemic.  Senator Frist, a medical doctor, cautioned “Experts warn that a global, cataclysmic pandemic is not a question of if, but when.  Like an earthquake, it could hit anytime.  And when it does, it could take the lives of tens of millions of people – including half a million people right here in the United States.  The threat is real.”

Dr. Frist went on to say “We need a coordinated, comprehensive, and aggressive plan which draws on public health, homeland security, foreign policy and defense expertise.”  He has called for a “Manhattan Project for the 21st Century” which would launch an unprecedented collaboration between government, industry, and academia.

Senator Reid said that the time to prepare for the flu pandemic is now.  He explained “A flu pandemic occurs when a new strain of flu emerges in the human population that can cause serious illness and death and can easily spread between humans.  The avian flu referred to by scientists as the H5N1 flu strain already meets the first test.  Roughly half of the 115 people who have been diagnosed with the virus have died. 

“At present, all that stands between avian flu and pandemic status is the fact that scientists do not believe avian flu can be transmitted between humans.  All known cases have been the result of transmission from birds to humans.  However, scientists fear that it is only a matter of time before the avian flu virus mutates into a form that can spread easily from human to human.”

Senator Reid reported that a respected U.S. health expert had concluded that 1.7 million Americans would die in the first year alone of an outbreak and that a pandemic in the United States would cost the economy hundreds of billions of dollars.  He said that neither the United States nor the world was prepared to deal with a flu pandemic, and that the World Health Organization “has recommended that countries stockpile enough anti-viral medication to cover 25 percent of their populations.”

While many countries, including Great Britain, France, and New Zealand have ordered enough Tamiflu, an antiviral pill, to cover up to 40% of their population, Senator Reid said that “we have been told that the United States would have to wait until the end of 2007 before we could secure enough Tamiflu to cover just 25 percent of our population.”

Senator Reid said immediate action should take place on several fronts:

·    Improve surveillance and international partnerships so new flu strains can be detected early
·    Finalize and fund pandemic preparedness and response plans
·    Develop, produce, and distribute an effective vaccine
·    Stockpile antiviral medications
·    Educate Americans about pandemic flu

Senator Reid ended by saying that action needs to be taken now.  “We need not wait for a perfect plan on paper to start dedicating more resources to address this issue.  We know today that funding certain programs can dramatically reduce the consequences of a future avian flu outbreak.  We also know that many of these programs are either unfunded or massively under funded.”

The Senator, along with colleagues, introduced an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill that would provide $3.913 billion to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  The money would be used for the stockpiling of antiviral medications and necessary medical supplies, global surveillance; increased vaccine capacity, and grants to state and local public health agencies for emergency preparedness.

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