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U.S. Remains Unready For Pandemic

May 12, 2009
by Marilyn Werber Serafini
National Journal

The anthrax, SARS, and avian flu scares of recent years frightened the federal government into making much-needed progress toward coping with any major health emergency -- even one of terrifying pro-portions. But progress isn't readiness. And because Uncle Sam suffers from what amounts to attention deficit disorder, the nation remains dangerously underprepared in many ways. "We are, by nature, people who have very short memories," said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. "We will address an emergent problem, but even after 9/11, anthrax attacks, and [Hurricane] Katrina ... there is a pattern in which we invest and then cut that investment, and another event happens, so we have to play catch-up."

The swine flu that hit first in Mexico is a reminder that U.S. supplies of antivirals are widely viewed as inadequate.

Still, experts see considerable improvement. Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit public health advocacy group, notes that the Health and Human Services Department recently reached its goal of stockpiling enough antiviral medication to treat infections in 25 percent of the U.S. population and that it has purchased 104 million respirators, 51.6 million surgical masks, 20 million syringes, and 4,000 ventilators.

All state governments have adopted pandemic preparedness plans, along with blueprints for how they would receive and distribute emergency vaccines, antidotes, pharmaceuticals, and medical supplies from federal stockpiles, Levi said on National Journal's Health Care expert blog this week.

As the immediate threat from swine flu seemed to recede, he added, "A real-time experience with a novel virus outbreak tests all our plans -- from communications to policies around school closure and ramping up laboratory and care capacities. We should re-evaluate during this interim period to see what areas need improvement and, possibly, increased investment."