Bird Flu Alarm

2006-05-23-Most cities, states not ready for flu pandemic

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-05-23-Most cities, states not ready for flu pandemic

Most states and cities lack adequate plans to dole out drugs and respirators needed to combat a flu pandemic, leaving the nation with a critical gap in preparedness, public health officials say.
The federal government has a stockpile of millions of doses of anti-flu drugs and thousands of respirators, but health advocates fear the medicine and equipment could languish in storage or on airport tarmacs during a devastating outbreak.

"You can have all the Tamiflu and respirators in the world, but if you can't get them to the people who need them, they're not much good," says Kim Elliott of the non-profit Trust for America's Health.

The pandemic-related drugs, such as the anti-viral medicine Tamiflu, are kept in the federal government's Strategic National Stockpile. The stockpile is a huge cache of vaccines, antidotes and medical supplies that can be used to respond to disease outbreaks, bioterrorism and other health emergencies.

Supplies are maintained by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and are stored in secret locations across the country. They can be flown or driven within 12 hours to state distribution centers, but from there, it's up to the states and cities to pick up the supplies and get them to their residents.

As of December 2005, the government granted "green" status to only seven states prepared to deliver supplies from the stockpile, according to Elliott's group.

"It's something that, frankly, keeps us up at night," Elliott says.

The CDC, which is giving states $350 million to develop pandemic preparedness plans, reviews state stockpile plans regularly and rates the states on overall preparedness.

The government won't say which states have been granted green status. The trust recently reported that 38 states are in the middle "amber" category, meaning they have made some progress. Six others were labeled "red," or unprepared to respond to a health emergency.

Asia is struggling with an outbreak of the H5N1 strain of bird flu. There's no evidence the avian flu will mutate to become contagious between people ? a development that could launch a pandemic that would threaten millions ? but infected birds could show up in the USA in a matter of months.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says his department will review preparedness plans. "I don't think we have any time to lose," he said. "This is the kind of catastrophic thing that has to be on the front burner."

Georges Benjamin, director of the American Public Health Association, says states need to conduct exercises to see whether the plans they develop will actually work.

"It's a big logistical challenge," he says.

Donna Knutson, a CDC senior adviser on terrorism preparedness and emergency response, says states should try to have workable plans in place within three to four months.

"We've come a long way," she says, "but we also have a long way to go."

Understanding Avian Influenza