Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Flu Season

Last night I dropped by my neighborhood drug store to pick up some vitamins and found the parking lot nearly full. The sign in front of the store announced the reason why: "Flu Shots: 4pm to 8pm." Like many clinics, hospitals, and other drug stores, flu shots were being offered to seniors and infants first, and the line for the injections snaked out the door.

This year, unlike last year, authorities believe there will be adequate supplies of the vaccine, according to the New York Times.

As worries increase about the possibility of a flu pandemic, public health officials are hoping that this year's flu season will be the first in years with an abundance of vaccines.

Four companies are approved to produce seasonal flu vaccines in the United States this year, and together they are expected to deliver about 90 million doses - about as many as have ever been used in a single season.

But as in previous years, that supply is not yet guaranteed. So federal officials have asked doctors and clinics to vaccinate only people age 65 or older, babies and the infirm until Oct. 24, when all people will be encouraged to get vaccinated.

Influenza kills an inordinate number of people each year, and lost wages and time for those too sick to work does affect the economy, so one hopes the optimism struck by the companies producing this year's variety of the vaccine is well-founded.

Buried in the story, however, is an interesting bit of information about the potential for the Avian flu pandemic that has finally crept into the consciousness of the world.

In Thailand, Michael O. Leavitt, secretary of health and human services, began a four-nation tour of Southeast Asia this week in hopes of increasing international cooperation to combat a possible global epidemic of avian flu.

"For all of us, the best defense is containment," Mr. Leavitt said, "to find it and find it soon and then work as an international community to contain it. That requires all of us to act in a way that is both transparent and cooperative."

The Bush administration's flu plan, a draft of which was obtained by The New York Times, predicts that international cooperation will end as soon as a pandemic begins. The administration hopes to encourage domestic production of vaccines, the plan says, because "other countries are likely to prevent the export of vaccine to the U.S. or elsewhere until national needs are met."

The plan also suggests that many nations are likely to ask the United States for help in a pandemic. "However, current limitations of global vaccine manufacturing capacity, drug production and stockpiling," the plan says, "and limited stocks of relevant medical equipment, will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to provide any materials from any one country."

Mr. Leavitt urged leaders to increase their own capacities for making vaccines.
[Emphasis added]

The World Health Organization has been recommending for a long time now that the key to avoiding the pandemic has been to stop it at its source, generally believed to be in the poorer countries in East Asia. So Secretary Leavitt's comments are definitely on target. What is disappointing is the assessment of the Bush administration that cooperation will go out the window once the discovery of human to human transmission of the avian flu is made.

While that assessment may be accurate, and calling for each country to develop its own source for vaccines is prudent, in the long run it is short sighted and self-fulfilling. I would have preferred that world leaders instead develop a plan for quick and massive response in those countries which are too poor to fund the production of vaccines instead. And I would have preferred that this nation take the lead in such an effort.

I appear to be doomed to disappointment by this regime.


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