Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Pandemic Flu Update

The World Health Organization on October 23, 2006, reported on the urgency of worldwide efforts to step up vaccination for flu season. Supplies are billions short, and failure to increase vaccine production could unnecessarily expose billions of people to a pandemic flu outbreak. The vaccine shortage implications for the flu season carry even more serious implications for a potential avian flu outbreak. U.S. HHS Secretary Michael Levitt supported the WHO recommendations, noting the spread of avian flu to 40 additional countries and 250 human infections in 10 countries in the last year.

A recent report by Johns Hopkins researcher Lori Uscher-Pines echoed the WHO concerns regarding global preparedness. A survey of 40 nations' flu plans, ranging in length from 10 to 500 pages long, revealed particular weaknesses in setting priorities. For example, most countries' plans prioritized vaccines to children just after health care workers, despite WHO's advice against that approach. Listen here.

Another recent report from MIT and Harvard researchers suggests that, contrary to previous simulation studies, air travel restrictions could play an important role in containing the influenza spread. The report is the first empirical evidence for role of airline travel in containing spread of influenza. Researchers analyzed existing CDC data on weekly influenza and pneumonia mortality to measure rates of inter-regional spread and timing of oubreaks. They also compared data on influenza mortality during the post-9/11 flight restrictions and subsequent depression of air travel. Even a brief air-travel shutdown of a few weeks could allow time to develop and distribute vaccines and implement "social distancing" measures such as closing schools without imposing a severe economic impact of the air travel.

Although waning media coverage has prompted some to think that the threat of a pandemic has passed, health experts warn that "[n]othing could be further from the truth," according to the World Health Organization, deaths from avian flu have increased from about one every nine days last year to one every four days so far this year. 73 of the 108 confirmed cases this year have been fatal, compared with 42 of 97 cases all of last year. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, "We're as worried now as we ever have been."

The Baltimore Sun on Friday, October 20, published a special report on the impact of the 1918 flu pandemic on Baltimore. Over 3,000 Baltimore residents dies in the pandemic by Nov. 1, 1918. The report contains multiple articles and multimedia features.

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