- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Health authorities told senators yesterday that the U.S. response to SARS has been exemplary, but that the respiratory virus also highlights gaps in the healthcare system that need address.

One health official warned the Senate Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations that “the worst … is yet to come” in the impact of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

“I am convinced that with the advent of early winter in the Northern Hemisphere in just six short months, we could see a resurgence of SARS that could far exceed our experience to date,” said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Michigan. “I am convinced that like the early days of the HIV epidemic, the worst of SARS is yet to come.”

Mr. Osterholm told senators that though SARS has waned in some places, the continued spread of the virus in China and Taiwan indicates it has “seeded itself in a significant number of humans” and thus will return seasonally, perhaps in an even bigger way.

Officials say the United States now has 67 probable cases of SARS, but so far has escaped any deaths from the pneumonia-like illness that officials say has killed 666 and infected nearly 8,000 people worldwide, hitting hardest in Asia, where it is believed to have originated. Yesterday the World Health Organization extended its travel advisory for all of Taiwan because the illness has been spreading there.

Mary C. Selecky, secretary of the Washington state Department of Health, said that while increased funding from Congress over the past two years for public-health preparedness has helped state officials better respond to SARS, “local and state health departments face a serious shortage of trained health care professionals,” which could impede efforts to deal with a future outbreak of SARS.

Washington state was able to deal with the suspected 28 SARS cases it faced. But Miss Selecky wondered how prepared her state would have been if it had been overwhelmed like Toronto, which faced hundreds of cases. If that happened, she said, her state would need many more epidemiologists, nurses, specialists and communications staff. That SARS work load would be in addition to those of other infectious diseases, and she wondered if health officials could cope with the burden.

Miss Selecky told senators that “limited resources hamper our ability to deal quickly and effectively with the vast array of public-health challenges that face us daily.”

Mr. Osterholm also said that despite the more than $2 billion in federal money provided to states for public-health preparedness, much of it is being used for smallpox vaccinations, and many states are still cutting back in crucial areas because of budget deficits. An aging public-health work force is also a concern, he said.

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