U.S. to Virginia: Don’t Count on Feds If Flu Pandemic Hits

March 28, 2006

The federal government cannot be relied upon to protect Virginia from a potential flu pandemic, and no state is fully prepared to handle such an outbreak, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told Virginia officials last Thursday.

Leavitt issued the warning to around 900 officials from local governments, schools, businesses, and health and emergency services. Similar summits are being held in each state to raise awareness of a possible flu pandemic.

“If there’s a pandemic in the 21st century, it’s going to reach Virginia,” Leavitt said. “Any community that fails to prepare, with the expectation that somehow the federal government will come to the rescue, will be tragically wrong. Not because the federal government lacks a will … but because there is no way to respond to 5,000 communities at the same time.”

Leavitt’s concerns were echoed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who also addressed the crowd and reiterated that local preparedness is key.

“No federal resources are sufficient to handle all the problems we have,” Kaine said. “We need to make sure at the state level that the resources are available.”

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization announced that 103 people have died from the H5N1 strain of bird flu. Although no cases in the United States have been reported, health officials fear the virus could mutate into a version that could easily be transmitted between people, potentially triggering a global pandemic.

The virus has genetic characteristics that are very similar to those of the virus of 1918, which was also a bird flu that mutated into one that spread easily among humans, Leavitt said.

The 1918 virus was the most lethal flu germ of the 20th Century, killing 20 million to 50 million worldwide and leaving more than 500,000 people dead in the United States alone.

A flu pandemic today could sicken 90 million people in one year and leave 2 million dead, Leavitt said.

Whether or not this particular strain of flu leads to a pandemic, future pandemics are inevitable — and nobody is well-prepared to handle one, Leavitt said.

“Pandemics happen,” he said. ‘”The reality is, in the construct of history, we are overdue and we’re underprepared.”

Virginia’s plan will focus on better communication between health officials and the public and will address the needs of the state’s most vulnerable residents, including the elderly and the poor, Kaine said. Hospitals must also ensure they have enough supplies on hand to handle an onslaught of flu-sickened patients, he said.

Leavitt suggested residents keep a two-week supply of food and adequate medical supplies at home in the event of a massive outbreak.

The federal government has already given Virginia $2.2 million in funding to help with preparedness and the state will receive 1 million treatment courses of Tamiflu and other antiviral drugs by 2007, Leavitt said.

Kaine did not respond when asked if he thought the federal government’s funding for Virginia was adequate.

A milder form of avian flu in 2002 led to an outbreak in the Shenandoah Valley that quickly spread out of control, infecting nearly 200 farms and forcing the slaughter of 5 million birds.

“Just that indication in our recent history certainly should make us sort of sit on the edge of our chairs and be particularly alert,” Kaine said.

For information: Pandemic Flu: http://vdh.virginia.gov/pandemicflu/

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