Doctors question government about Tamiflu

/ Source: The Associated Press

Worried that bird flu in Asia could morph into a human flu pandemic, healthy patients, schools and even some doctors are asking if they should stock up on Tamiflu — the one medicine experts believe might help fight the virus.

Although some doctors’ groups say no, the agency in charge of the nation’s public health has no answer. That has frustrated local health officials who want to know how to advise people.

“Those are questions that are under discussion,” Christina Pearson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said this week. “Right now we’re focused on the seasonal flu.”

HHS includes the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose job includes dispensing public health recommendations.

“A lot of people have asked the CDC to provide some guidance about this, with patients asking doctors for prescriptions,” said Dr. Craig Conover, medical director for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Personal hoarding isn’t fair, he said, “but on the other hand, I have heard people say that the more this gets used, the more manufacturing ability they’ll develop. We’ve chosen to wait for CDC guidance on this.”

Tamiflu is a prescription pill designed to treat regular flu. But it also seems to offer some protection to people against the type of flu that has devastated Asian poultry flocks and is spreading to birds in Europe. Bird flu has killed more than 60 people over the past two years.

On Thursday, Tamiflu’s Swiss maker, Roche Holding AG, said it was temporarily suspending shipment to private U.S. suppliers because of increased global demand.

“We’ve seen recently some very large purchases at the wholesale level, companies or large entities who are possibly hoarding Tamiflu right now,” said Darien Wilson, spokeswoman at Roche’s U.S. offices in Nutley, N.J.

Prescriptions for the drug last week were nearly quadruple what they were a year before, according to Verispan, a Pennsylvania-based company that monitors pharmacy sales.

And this winter’s flu season hasn’t even started yet.

'Bad, bad idea'
Maura Robbins of Chicago said she and her husband have discussed whether to seek prescriptions for their two young children as a precaution against a pandemic. They won’t for now, because they “didn’t want to buy into the hysteria or overreact,” she said.

Dr. Bennett Kaye, a pediatrician affiliated with Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, said he tells patients that stocking up on Tamiflu “is definitely a bad, bad idea.”

The virus circulating among Asian birds is not spreading between people and is not even very easy for people to catch from birds.

“Parents should not be worried about their kids catching bird flu this year unless they’re planning on visiting a chicken farm in Vietnam,” Kaye said.

Published reports suggest that some doctors are keeping supplies of Tamiflu to give to family and friends in case the bird flu mutates into a bigger threat, but no doctors reached for this story acknowledged that.

The American Medical Association is against personal stockpiling and says the misuse of Tamiflu could lead to drug-resistant flu strains.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is preparing a statement urging pediatricians “not to do personal or organizational stockpiles,” said Dr. John Bradley, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ infectious disease committee. “The last sentence of the statement is that no pediatrician on this committee has a personal stockpile or is prescribing the drug” for healthy people.

Dr. Deborah Yokoe, an infectious disease specialist at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said, “Doctors are human, too. They have the same sorts of anxieties themselves. I’m sure some are keeping supplies, too.”

Last week, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health issued a notice advising against personal stockpiling, prompted by patients’ questions, and Yokoe said such messages will discourage some doctors from writing advance prescriptions for a potential flu pandemic.

Face mask orders
Tamiflu isn’t the only hot commodity being sought because of pandemic worries.

Kimberly-Clark Health Care says it has “ramped up to full capacity” face mask production to keep up with bird flu-linked demand from governments, hospitals and individuals. Surgical N-95 masks protect against airborne disease transmission.

Company spokesman David Parks declined to specify numbers but said some orders have been 50 times higher than usual.

3M spokeswoman Jacqueline Berry also reported a rise in face-mask orders but said reasons for demand include hurricane-related mold problems.