- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services yesterday released a draft report that outlines a “coordinated national strategy” for responding to the next influenza pandemic, whenever that might occur.

“An influenza pandemic has a greater potential to cause rapid increases in death and illness than virtually any other natural health threat,” says the executive summary of the Draft Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response Plan.

This plan will serve as a road map for how the nation responds to the next influenza pandemic, said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

“Our proposed strategy draws upon a wealth of experience and knowledge we have gained in responding to a number of recent public health threats, including SARS and avian flu,” Mr. Thompson said.

HHS defines flu pandemics as “explosive global events, in which most, if not all persons worldwide, are at risk for infection and illness. The number of deaths can reach the hundreds of thousands, even millions.”

The draft report notes that “recent outbreaks of human disease caused by avian influenza strains in Asia and Europe highlight the potential of new strains to be introduced in the human population.”

In the 20th century, three influenza pandemics occurred. The most recent was in 1968, when the Hong Kong flu killed 34,000 people in that country.

The most deadly influenza pandemic was the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak. It killed about 675,000 Americans and 20 million total worldwide.

Although it is impossible to predict the toll from the next flu pandemic, the report suggests a “bad one” could kill up to 207,000 Americans. The elderly and young children typically are those most at risk in flu outbreaks.

The draft plan provides guidelines for federal, state and local policy-makers and health departments to help them prepare for an onslaught of influenza. It supports pandemic influenza activity in five key areas: surveillance; vaccine development and production; anti-viral stockpiling; research; and public health preparedness.

The report says it is unlikely an appropriate vaccine would be immediately available to protect against a powerful new flu strain. In a pandemic, there is a sudden shift in the flu virus’ structure that increases its ability to cause illness in a large proportion of the population.

Flu vaccines developed and changed annually to match strains of virus known to be circulating among humans worldwide are not likely to be potent enough.

The report makes several recommendations to enhance vaccine development. These include keeping libraries of flu viruses that would be suitable for vaccine production and using new molecular techniques to produce high-growth viruses.

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