U.S. health experts are putting together a plan for dealing with a pandemic of avian influenza should one break out, a Health and Human Services Department official said on Wednesday.
The plan includes deciding who should be vaccinated and who should get antiviral drugs first, said Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, an HHS vaccine adviser.
“We know that an influenza pandemic will occur,” Schwartz told a news conference organized by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
The H5N1 strain of avian flu first surfaced in poultry in Hong Kong and China eight years ago and has killed more than 50 people in Asia, including in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia and most recently Indonesia.
Health experts fear it could kill millions around the world if it mutates into a form that could easily spread from person to person.
2 million doses of Tamiflu stockpiled
HHS has stockpiled more than 2 million doses of Roche’s Tamiflu, known generically as oseltamivir, which has been shown to help protect against bird flu and which can treat the symptoms, Schwartz said.
The agency has plans to order up to 20 million doses.
He said a committee was meeting in Washington this week and would give a plan to HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt next week.
Shortcomings in U.S. preparedness include a lack of tests to rapidly diagnose a person or an animal infected with the flu, a ready vaccine supply and ways to rapidly make a new vaccine.
Influenza viruses mutate quickly, so vaccines can only be developed after a new strain emerges. This takes about six months.
“In a pandemic, everyone will be susceptible and vaccination recommendations will likely be universal,” Schwartz said.
And right now, only two companies make vaccine in the United States — Sanofi-Aventis and MedImmune. Chiron makes vaccine for the U.S. market but its factory is in Britain.
“Because every country around the world will be affected, we assume that only vaccine made in the United States will be available here,” Schwartz said. British authorities are likely to keep any vaccine made their for their own residents.
Experts will have to decide who gets vaccinated first. Current guidelines point to the elderly, infants, pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses.
“In a pandemic, we need to consider whether to vaccinate police and firefighters, and utility workers,” Schwartz said.
The public health system also needs to be shored up, with extra hospital beds, isolation units and staffers, Schwartz said.