Officials are better prepared for this outbreak of swine flu

May 4, 2009
by Meredith Cohn
Baltimore Sun

 Efforts to develop a specific plan began in the 1990s during the Clinton administration, but President George W. Bush solidified the move in 2005 with a National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza and $7.1 billion in funding.

The plan coordinated federal, state and local health workers, as well as border surveillance and hospital preparedness. It also led to creation of an infrastructure to allow for speedy dissemination of antiviral medications that are generally effective only a day or two after infection, and development of vaccines that could be needed in the event of a deadly outbreak, according to Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit group that works for disease prevention.

"It raised the level of attention throughout the government by creating an almost forced march for the agencies to come up with a preparedness plan," he said. "Now we are in a much better place than five years ago. ... There is one science-backed message from everyone, no hysteria."

That doesn't mean the government is fully prepared, however, Levi said. Diminished numbers of health care workers due to cuts and retirements, and funding to replenish vaccine and antiviral stockpiles, among other things, remain problems, Levi said.

The recession is only making the shortfalls worse, he said. For example, funding was added and then removed from last year's congressional appropriations and the recent economic stimulus package.

That could jeopardize the government's effort to expand vaccine production capacity, Levi said. The goal is to produce enough for every American within six months of a pandemic virus being identified. And more immediately, it could jeopardize supplies of antiviral medications, such as Tamiflu, for the most vulnerable Americans.

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