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Experts Debate Whether State Ready For Possible Flu Pandemic

CONTACT: Jane Lane
(617) 338-2726

BOSTON, June 07, 2006 - While experts agree there is significant potential for a worldwide influenza pandemic, they question whether national and state governments are ready to respond to a public health crisis that has already killed half its human victims.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Massachusetts public health experts discussed the potential effects of an influenza pandemic at Brandeis University’s Massachusetts Health Policy Forum held June 8th at the Radisson Hotel.

'The Pandemic Threat: Is Massachusetts Prepared?' featured a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Howard Koh, Associate Dean for Public Health Practice at the Harvard School of Public Health. Panelists included Dr. Gerberding, Paul Cote, Commissioner of the Mass. Department of Public Health, Rep. Peter Koutoujian, House Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health and Harold Cox of the Cambridge Department of Public Health.

In a March 22nd published interview, Dr. Gerberding noted that the United States is not even 50 percent prepared to respond to an influenza pandemic. It has been estimated that the number of vaccines required to halt the spread of avian flu will be around 600 million; the current capacity is about one-tenth that amount. Delays in producing an effective vaccine, along with the process of prioritizing who should receive the vaccine, could have deadly results during a pandemic, the panelists agreed.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health assumes there will be a lag of six months before a vaccine is even available, at which time 70,000 doses will be distributed to high-risk individuals until more vaccine becomes available. Who receives the vaccine first will be determined as the pandemic unfolds.

According to the Massachusetts Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Plan, cities and towns must have a plan in place to deal with a pandemic. Every community is expected to have a dispensing site in full operation within 24 hours of an emergency being declared in order to provide vaccinations and medications to at least 80 percent of the population. Continued funding is critical to both state and local health departments so they can mount an effective response to any public health emergency.

In addition to funding, there is a need for strong leadership, coordination between state and local public health departments, planning for special needs populations and coordination among all sectors of the community. The panelists agreed it is not clear whether Massachusetts has met each of these challenges.