Is U. S.
prepared for bird flu pandemic?
Much larger drug supply,
vaccine needed, experts warn
Updated: 7:54 a. m. ET May 27, 2005 WASHINGTON - The
United States still has no licensed vaccine to prevent
avian flu and has nowhere near enough drugs on hand to
treat the sick if there is an epidemic, experts told
Hospitals have too little capacity to deal with the huge
numbers of people who would become sick and the U. S.
Health and Human Services Department does not even have a
plan for dealing with an epidemic, the experts said.
Although many levels of government are paying increased
attention to the problem, the United States remains
woefully unprepared for an influenza pandemic that could
kill millions of Americans, said Dr. Andrew Pavia,
chairman of the Infectious Disease Society of America s
Pandemic Influenza Task Force.
Clearly, we need a much larger supply of drugs and
vaccine to control a flu pandemic. We need to build up U.
S. manufacturing capacity so that we are not dependent on
other countries to meet our needs, Pavia said in remarks
prepared for a hearing of the health subcommittee of the
House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Effectiveness of bird flu vaccine debated
The H5N1 strain of avian flu affecting chickens, ducks
and other birds in parts of Asia could sicken up to 20
percent of the world s population if it acquires the
ability to pass easily among people, says influenza
expert Dr. Albert Osterhaus of the Erasmus Medical Center
in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
No immunity, no protection A pandemic could throw 30
million people into the hospital and a quarter of them
could die, Osterhaus and colleagues predicted in articles
in Thursday s issue of the journal Nature.
The H5N1 virus, which first surfaced in poultry in Hong
Kong and China eight years ago, has killed 37 people in
Vietnam, 12 in Thailand and four in Cambodia.
It does not yet easily infect people but if it mutates
just a bit, it could rival the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic
that killed between 20 and 40 million people.
Influenza causes epidemics annually and kills 36,000
Americans in a normal season. Different strains emerge
almost annually, and a new one can kill many more if it
is one that has not affected people in recent years.
A brand-new strain could be devastating.
The U. S. population has no immunity and therefore no
protection against this deadly virus, Pavia said.
He recommended that the United States stockpile a larger
supply of antiviral drugs, especially oseltamivir, made
by Switzerland s Roche under the brand name Tamiflu.
Avian influenza resists older antiviral drugs such as
amantadine and rimantadine but Tamiflu can help make an
infection less severe.
Although Roche has quadrupled its production capacity for
Tamiflu, experts believe global stockpiles will be too
small for a pandemic. The current stockpile would treat
less than 2 percent of the U. S. population
-- Pavia said IDSA recommends having enough on hand to
treat 50 percent.
The U. S. government has also contracted with
Sanofi-Aventis and Chiron Corp. to make H5N1 flu
vaccines, but the contracts provide for only 2 million
doses and the vaccines are still experimental.
The U. S. Government Accountability Office also
criticized the U. S. lack of preparation.
Marcia Crosse, Director of Health Care for the GAO, said
in prepared testimony that the United States needs to
address regulatory, privacy, and procedural issues
surrounding measures to control the spread of disease,
especially across borders.
And the hospital and health work force is insufficient to
handle an influenza pandemic, she said.