Health advocates urge federal officials to prepare for flu pandemic

The federal government must take a more active role in preparing for a potentially catastrophic strain of flu, according to a report released last week by a public health advocacy group.

Trust for America's Health, a nonpartisan public health watchdog group, said that 500,000 Americans could die and more than 2.3 million could be sickened if even a moderately severe strain of a pandemic flu virus hits the country.

A pandemic flu is a strain for which humans have no natural immunity. During the 20th century, flu pandemics occurred in 1918, 1957 and 1968. The 1918 outbreak was by far the deadliest.

The House Government Reform Committee will meet Thursday to consider the possibility that a killer flu could wreak havoc on an unprepared population.

"The Government Reform Committee has held several hearings over the last few years to let people know that the flu is not something to take lightly," said Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va. "TFAH's report clearly demonstrates that the emergence of a pandemic flu could exact a tremendous toll on U.S. health and economic stability."

Davis said the hearing would focus on problem areas in the public health system and planning and response efforts that the federal government can take.

The report found that by 2006 the federal government will probably have enough anti-viral pharmaceuticals to treat 5.3 million people. According to numerical models, there still would be more than 60 million at-risk people without access to vaccine.

Flu vaccine must be matched to individual strains of flu, and some health experts worry about the gap between the time a pandemic strain would emerge and the time an appropriate vaccine would be available. In the interim, public health workers would attempt to treat patients with anti-viral pharmaceuticals.

"This is not a drill. This is not a planning exercise," said TFAH Executive Director Shelley A. Hearne. "Americans are being placed needlessly at risk. The U.S. must take fast and furious action to prepare for a possible pandemic outbreak here at home."

She applauded the committee for holding the hearing.

"It's time for federal leadership to address some unsettling gaps in pandemic readiness," Hearne said. "There are a number of steps we can take to improve our short- and longer-term response."

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