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Press Releases :: December 14, 2005

Briefing Highlights Gaps in National Pandemic Flu Plan

Will the public know what to do in the event of a mass flu outbreak?  Who will citizens turn to for direction, accurate and timely information, and supplies?  These questions - and a host of others - were explored today in a U.S. House Science Committee Democratic briefing hosted by Ranking Member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA).

"I cannot stress this enough - should a highly lethal form of flu surface in the next few years, the biological sciences - vaccines and other medicines – will not save us," stated Rep. Gordon.

"Investing in biological research and stockpiling of medicines is the right thing to do because these investments can make a huge difference in our ability to protect the public, but we must develop and communicate effective public health response strategies because those are the strategies that federal, state and local authorities will have to rely on until the biological investments begin to pay off," said Rep. Baird.

On December 8th, 2005, Rep. Gordon sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services outlining his concerns with the Administration’s current pandemic plan.  The letter was also sent to the Centers for Disease Control and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Rep. Gordon’s letter and today’s briefing are intended to highlight gaps in the Administration’s current plan and start a national discussion on advances in social distancing, communications, and other public health measures - all in an effort to develop best practices for states and local governments to use not only in the event of a pandemic but for the betterment of national security and disaster planning in general.

The briefing included public health and social science experts.  Dr. Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon University stated, "Social scientists need to be part of the planning team, so that plans are based on science, not intuition.  Otherwise, citizens will receive advice that does not make sense to them, breeding distrust - like some of the hurricane evacuation messages."

"In recent disasters, we’ve seen that the federal response to certain situations has great room for improvement," added Rep. Gordon.  "That’s what today’s discussion is all about - insuring we have a solid workable plan in place."

In the Science Committee staff’s review of the Administration’s influenza plan, it was clear that if a flu pandemic were to occur in the next several years, there would simply not be sufficient vaccine or antivirals to slow the progress of the disease. Social distancing, effective communication, and other public health measures would be our only realistic line of defense.  This is the realm of social scientists. Yet, neither the National Strategy nor the Department of Health and Human Services plan makes effective use of current human behavioral and social science research.

Specifically, the Science Committee’s review of the Administration’s pandemic plan found failings in the plan in three areas: ensuring planning is behaviorally realistic; social distancing; and communication.

"Social scientists have been studying people’s responses to risks intensively since World War II," continued Dr. Fischhoff.  "Research conducted both in the armed forces and on the home front has identified patterns of behavior that can be expected to occur with pandemic flu, or any other risk.  A focus of the research has been providing the information that people need, in the form that they need it, in order to make effective decisions."

Yet, our scientific knowledge will be of little use without a proper organizational process for designing and evaluating communications.  Health experts worldwide have been sounding the alarm about the "inevitable" emergence for a new severe strain of the flu against which people have no natural immunity.

The World Health Organization estimated that should Avian flu become easily transmissible from human to human that 25% of the population would get sick from the virus.  Other scientists have estimated as high as 50%.  Even if the fatality rate (currently running at about 50%) was to fall to 5%, that would still be a death rate double that of the 1918 flu.  In a severe pandemic, 10 million Americans could be hospitalized and 1.9 million could die.

Currently, the Administration’s $7.1 billion plan calls for a "crash program" for combating influenza.  However, the target dates are distant.  The plan calls for stockpiling enough vaccine for 20 million people by 2009; stockpiling 75 million doses of antivirals to treat 25% of the population by 2007; and expanding emergency surge capacity for vaccine production by 2010 to be able to manufacture enough vaccine for all Americans within 6 months should a pandemic strike.

Rep. Baird holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.  In July, he introduced legislation to help fight dangerous infectious diseases like influenza.  The Infectious Diseases Research and Development Act of 2005 (IDRDA) will fast-track FDA approval of vaccines and drugs for dangerous infectious diseases.  Due to a host of regulatory barriers and other such obstacles, it currently could take months to make a new vaccine widely available should a pandemic flu virus hit.  IDRDA will also provide incentives for creating vaccines and drugs to fight emerging infectious diseases.

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