Saturday, October 15, 2005

Suggestions on how to help keep Americans safer from Bird Flu

When discussing the avian flu last week, President Bush suggested the military might be needed to enforce quarantines if an outbreak occurs in the United States. Yet quarantines are only a short-term measure while the government marshals its initial response. Right now, Washington should focus its energies on prevention and on how best to execute its response should an outbreak occur.

And the disease keeps coming closer

But Congress should also undertake a bigger-picture look at aspects of the country's health-care system that it has avoided like the plague.

Here are two important considerations for the federal government:

1. Increase government involvement in vaccine manufacturing.
Researchers all over the world are working to develop an effective flu vaccine. They'll likely supply their own country first, while the United States once again goes begging for doses of vaccine. The avian flu is another reminder that the United States relies too heavily on private and international companies — with their eye on profit, not public health — to manufacture vaccines.

Vaccines are a cornerstone in protecting public health. They provide basic protection against deadly and debilitating diseases such as smallpox, polio and the flu. The government needs to play a much larger role in developing and producing them. One idea: Create a federal vaccine facility. The best minds and resources could be brought together in a government facility. Or, the government could partner with the private sector to ensure adequate supplies of all vaccines for the people of this country.

2. Consider making anti-virals available without a prescription.

Congress allocated dollars to fund the stockpiling of anti-viral drugs, such as the prescription Tamiflu. Anti-virals can shorten the duration of flu and lessen the severity of symptoms, though some experts have questioned their effectiveness against bird flu. Once again, the U.S. government is relying on private and international drug makers, who have an entire world to supply.

Even if there were adequate supply, Tamiflu must be taken within a few days of contracting the flu. In an outbreak, it's unlikely millions of Americans would be able to get to a doctor, get a prescription and get it filled. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should weigh the side effects and risks of Tamiflu and consider making it available over the counter so it's readily available when people need it.

Though there are no documented cases of human-to-human transmission of bird flu, people in other countries have died after catching the virus from infected birds. Since a virus has a nasty habit of mutating, it might be only a matter of time before it begins moving through the human population.

Americans are not immune to a global epidemic, the same way we're not immune to hurricanes. As this country recently learned, being well prepared can mean the difference between life and death.
Avian-flu threat exposes flaws in vaccine system.


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