HHS chief urges states to prepare for bird flu

December 06, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt urged each state yesterday to prepare for the possibility of a deadly avian flu pandemic by holding planning summits within four months.

During a daylong meeting of about 200 state and federal health and emergency planning officials, Leavitt said it is time to move "from ethereal plans to community action" that includes local policies for distributing life-saving medicines, closing schools, restricting travel and communicating accurate information to the public to head off panic.

Although he acknowledged that the feared worldwide contagion might not occur soon, Leavitt said it is better to be prepared.

He pointed out that even if there is no pandemic and he is eventually accused of crying wolf, the nation will gain by modernizing its vaccine industry, the cornerstone of President Bush's $7 billion pandemic preparedness plan.

Some of the state officials at the meeting were skeptical about added costs and shifting priorities. Dr. Susan Allan, Oregon's public health director, cautioned against what she called "the disease-of-the-month plan."

"I do have a concern about the focus on a single disease, when other diseases may pose an equally severe risk," she said.

"I'm afraid that everybody will drop what they're doing on other [health issues] and a lot of good activity will be undercut."

Iowa health director Mary Mincer Hansen criticized a feature of Bush's plan that calls on the states to bear a substantial share of the cost for purchasing antiviral drugs. Such medicines are not vaccines but can help ease severe flu symptoms and, in some cases, prevent infection.

Calling on the states to buy antivirals "is doing a disservice to us," Hansen said. "We need a national stockpile."

Arizona and Minnesota have scheduled summits for this month, which will make them the first states to hold such meetings.

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