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 Post subject: Flu pandemic would ‘overwhelm’ U.S. health care system
PostPosted: Mon Jan 05, 2009 5:10 pm 
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Flu pandemic would ‘overwhelm’ U.S. health care system, report finds
Oct 01, 2008 ... x?id=99507

GAO report on influenza pandemic preparedness
Issues explored in the GAO report

1. Pharmaceutical interventions available to reduce the health, societal and economic impacts of a pandemic

2. Nonpharmaceutical interventions available to prevent the spread of the influenza virus

3. Challenges faced by the Department of Health and Human Services in the event of a pandemic, which include lack of vaccine manufacturing capacity in the U.S. and the difficulties associated with executing quarantine requirements

WASHINGTON -- In the case of an influenza pandemic, the U.S. health care system would be inadequately prepared to meet the needs of an infected population, according to a report released this week by a government watchdog agency.

The report, published by the Government Accountability Office, criticizes the Department of Health and Human Services’ influenza pandemic preparedness, finding concerns about ineffective means of dispensing treatment and a lack of organization in getting the program up and running.

“HHS has made a lot of progress in preparedness planning, but it still need 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 guiidance for officials to assure they react effectively during an outbreak.

In a pandemic situation, the government relies on people at the local and community levels to provide limited supplies of antiviral medications and to handle nonpharmaceutical interventions. That includes isolating sick people 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 in a telephone interview. “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 U.S. 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 weeks to 23 weeks to develop. Normally, in an unaccelerated, non-crisis situation, a vaccine takes six months to develop.

During a pandemic, the government plans to distribute pre-pandemic vaccines to citizens pegged as members of the “critical workforce,” which could include health care workers and law enforcement officials. As batches of the pandemic vaccine then become 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 health care community about the possibility of an influenza epidemic. Fears were raised in early 2005 after the avian influenza virus, commonly known as “bird flu,” broke out in Southeast Asia. However, the GAO, an arm of Congress, has suggested since 2000 that Health and Human Services needs to do more to improve its influenza pandemic preparedness.

The findings, 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.

The cabinet agency, HHS, did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

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