WASHINGTON – A day after warning that the world may be on the edge of a deadly Asian bird flu pandemic,Dr. Julie Gerberding said Americans shouldn't be rushing to the nearest clinic to ask for a shot of avian flu vaccine.
Well,not just yet.
“We are … not on the brink of an avian flu epidemic,” said Gerberding,head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,Tuesday at a National Press Club luncheon.
Gerberding said her earlier comments had been overblown. But she did not dispute the possibility that the avian flu virus that began spreading through Asian birds in late 2003 could become as deadly as the 1918 pandemic that killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people worldwide.
“This is serious. …We need to be shaken out of our complacency,” Gerberding said. “It is a worrisome situation.”
Scientists believe it is highly likely that the H5-type avian flu virus rapidly spreading through chickens and ducks in Asia will evolve into a deadly pathogen for humans,Gerberding told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Monday.
Out of the 47 human cases confirmed in Cambodia,China,Indonesia,Malaysia,Thailand and Vietnam,34 are dead. The CDC has begun a $5.5 million initiative to improve flu surveillance in Asia,and Gerberding said she is confident the country will contain the virus,which is made up of genes that rapidly mutate.
“Remember,these are the same people that stopped SARS in its tracks,” she said,referring to severe acute respiratory syndrome,which struck more than 8,000 people and killed 774 in 2003.
The avian flu virus is part of the H1 family of flu viruses,a group of infectious agents well known in history after causing the three worst flu pandemics of the 20th century.
The epidemic in 1918 known as “Spanish Flu” was caused by an H1-type virus. The Asian flu outbreak of 1957 was an H2-type,and the 1963 flu outbreak in Hong Kong was H3.
The United States has about 200 million doses of H5 vaccine,which is not part of this year's typical flu shot.
“Yes,we are very concerned about an avian flu outbreak. … But we are also focusing our greatest attention in that area,” Gerberding said.
Vaccinations have become a major focus for the agency after last year's shortage of influenza vaccine,which occurred after British officials shut down a plant in Liverpool,England,that produced about half of the vaccine intended for the United States.
“Despite the difficulties,we were able to do a pretty darn good job,” Gerberding said. She estimated that 50 percent of children ages 6 to 23 months were vaccinated but a lower percent of adults over age 65 than in previous years.
While some states now have surplus vaccine and are lifting restrictions on who can receive it,the flu season is expected to last through April. There is still high influenza activity in 16 states,according to the CDC.
The agency is “shopping internationally” for vaccination suppliers,Gerberding said. “We have uncertainty about next year's flu vaccine.”
The president's 2006 proposed budget calls for a 50 percent increase,or about $600 million,in funding for the Strategic National Stockpile of vaccines and other medicines.
While the program would receive $203 million more than last year if Congress approves it,the CDC would also absorb the third-largest cut of any agency within the Department of Health and Human Services,about $500 million,or 9 percent of this year's budget.
“We see this as a good budget for the CDC,” said Gerberding,pointing to the increase in funding for the nation's medicine stockpile.
Preventive health and bio-terrorism grants for state and local health departments are among the cuts,but Gerberding said these needs would be met through other federal programs.
“The emphasis is not in the decline of support,but a redistribution,” Gerberding said.