US braces for flu pandemic

Friday, 27 May , 2005, 08:03

Washington: US health authorities are taking urgent precautions against a 'flu pandemic' that experts warned could erupt at any time and claim tens of thousands of lives.

Top health officials warned that the United States was ill-prepared to counter a pandemic which could come from a mutation of the bird flu H5N1 that has badly hit Asia.

Their warnings came as European researchers are also warned this week that hundreds of millions could die around the globe if a mutated bird flu, helped by jet travel and open borders, emerges and sweeps the world.

Julie Gerberding, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said that even a "medium level pandemic" in the United States could result in 89,000-207,000 deaths and up to 734,000 people being hospitalised.

"A pandemic can occur any time during the year and can last much longer than seasonal influenza," she told a Congress health subcommittee.

The H5N1 avian flu has killed 54 people in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia and millions of chickens and other fowl have been slaughtered.

According to the World Health Organisation, 97 humans have caught the virus.

Doctors do not believe it can be transmitted from humans to other humans.

Experts say the unpredictable nature of the timing of the pandemic was one of the worst obstacles.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned the US House of Representatives panel of a potential global crisis.

"Although we cannot be certain exactly when the next influenza pandemic will occur, we can be virtually certain that one will occur and that the resulting morbidity, mortality, and economic disruption will present extraordinary challenges to public health authorities around the world," he said.

He said the CDC, US Federal Drug Administration other government agencies and pharmaceutical companies are working together to try to make sure there are sufficient supplies of vaccines and other medicines.

According to Gerberding, between 15 percent and 35 percent of the US population would be affected by a flu pandemic, and the cost to the US economy would be between 71 billion and 166 billion dollars.

European researchers have also spelled out disastrous scenarios if avian flu sweeps across international borders.

"A human flu pandemic could cause 20 percent of the world's population to become ill," Ron Fouchier, Thijs Kuiken, Guus Rimmelzwaan and Albert Osterhaus of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam said in an issue of the British science journal Nature dedicated to the subject.

"Within a few months, close to 30 million people would need to be hospitalised, a quarter of whom would die. Although these figures are speculative, they are among the more optimistic predictions of how the next flu pandemic might unfold," the Nature contributors added.

US-based experts meanwhile explained that if a pandemic did break out, it would likely take months to produce a vaccine for those infected or threatened by a spread of such a virus.

"Once a pandemic influenza strain is identified, a vaccine will take many months to produce, and our current stockpile of antiviral drugs is insufficient to meet the likely demand," warned Marcia Crosse, a health care analyst with the US General Accounting Office.

However, Crosse did note that there are "a number of systems in place to identify influenza outbreaks abroad, to alert us to a pandemic and these systems generally appear to be working well."