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U.S. unprepared for health disaster, study finds

Hospitals are not prepared to handle the patients who would arrive after a disaster or a pandemic, most states have few plans in place for coping and the federal government has not taken charge of such preparation, according to a report.
/ Source: Reuters

Hospitals are not prepared to handle the patients who would arrive after a disaster or a pandemic, most states have few plans in place for coping and the federal government has not taken charge of such preparation, according to a report released Tuesday.

Although President Bush released an influenza pandemic plan with great fanfare last month, and even though federal health experts have been issuing dire warnings for years, little has actually been done to get the nation ready, according to the Trust for America’s Health, or TFAH.

“While considerable progress has been achieved in improving America’s health emergency preparedness, the nation is still not adequately prepared for the range of serious threats we face,” the report from the non-profit health education group reads.

“To achieve an appropriate level of preparedness, efforts must be rapidly enhanced and accelerated, requiring improved policies and funding at all levels of government,” added the report, based on a survey of 20 public health experts, who evaluated 12 aspects of health emergency preparedness.

This is especially true with the new threat of H5N1 avian influenza, which is moving steadily through poultry and which has infected about at least 130 people, killing 69 of them. If the virus acquires the ability to pass easily from human to human, it will cause a pandemic that could kill tens of millions within a few months, experts predict.

“TFAH estimates that a midseverity pandemic outbreak could cause over half a million deaths and two million hospitalizations in the United States alone and could also disrupt the global economy.”

The U.S. government makes a much more dire prediction, saying two million people could die and a third of the population would become infected. It predicts up to 40 percent of the work force will be absent due to sickness or fear.

On Monday, U.S. health officials urged state and local governments to hold summits as soon as possible to plan for a possible pandemic.

State and local health officials have complained that the federal U.S. flu plan provides good guidance on vaccines and drugs but does little to address the more immediate problem of what already stretched hospitals will do if a third of the population gets sick at once.

“Hospitals in over 40 percent of states do not have sufficient backup supplies of medical equipment to meet surge capacity needs during a pandemic flu or other major infectious disease outbreak,” the Trust report reads.

“Over one-quarter of states do not have sufficient bioterrorism laboratory response capabilities,” it adds.

“Hospitals in only two states have sufficient plans, incentives, or provisions to encourage health-care workers to continue to come to work during a major infectious disease outbreak.”

The Trust report said the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated Gulf of Mexico states in August and September, showed the poor level of U.S. preparation.

“The response to Hurricane Katrina was a sharp indictment of America’s emergency response capabilities,” said Lowell Weicker, president of the Trust’s board and a former senator and governor of Connecticut, in a statement.

“This report provides further evidence of the major gap between response 'plans' and 'realities.' We need to get real in our planning for health emergencies.”