U.S. ready to face flu crisis -- almost

Chicago Tribune

The White House on Monday said it had met most of its early goals as it prepared to deal with a flu pandemic, but added that significant steps still must be taken to implement an effective strategy.

Homeland Security Advisor Frances F. Townsend told reporters that the federal government had made "significant progress," but needed to coordinate with local, state and foreign governments to effectively fight a global health crisis. "Preparedness is a shared responsibility," she said.

Internationally, Townsend said this meant that the U.S. would support efforts by other nations to reduce the effects of influenza outbreaks within their borders.

Domestically, the federal government has developed guidelines and invested $600 million in local and state government preparedness planning.

Vaccination is key to the federal government's efforts to combat a pandemic, Townsend said.

"There are a number of barriers that will prevent us from having large amounts of vaccine quickly during a pandemic," she added.

These barriers include limited production capacity, a relatively short shelf-life for the vaccine and the possibility that previously developed vaccines will not be effective against a newly mutated virus.

Townsend said the government had stockpiled 3 million doses of vaccine that it hoped could be used against a possible pandemic flu strain, and it expected to have an additional 5 million by the end of 2007.

In preparing to deal with a possible pandemic, increased emphasis has been placed on coordination of state and local governments, as well as the private sector. Problems include having enough hospital beds and how to close schools and other public institutions.

But wide disparities can be found in state readiness. In the coming weeks, the government is expected to release its first official assessment of the states' levels of preparedness.

Concerns about the effect of a pandemic flu on the economy have prompted many businesses to prepare for a possible pandemic.

A survey released last week by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions and the ERISA Industry Committee found that nearly three-quarters of private businesses acknowledged a threat of a pandemic flu.

Though about half of the companies surveyed had taken steps to address the threat, the number of companies taking action is increasing.

"America's employers are recognizing the need to reform their policies and prepare for the possibility of pandemic flu that could infect a large number of citizens -- impacting not only their business operations but the entire U.S. economy," Tommy G. Thompson, chairman of Deloitte, said in a statement.

Thompson, a one-time Wisconsin governor, was formerly secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Major influenza outbreaks tend to strike on a global scale every few decades, with three flu pandemics in the last century. The worst pandemic hit in 1918, killing 20 million to 50 million people worldwide.

The H5N1 flu virus, known as the bird flu, has infected 258 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Though it has not affected people in the United States, Townsend said the government was making preparations to fight the virus.

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