WASHINGTON – A major worldwide influenza outbreak derived from the avian flu is certain to occur in the near future. The only question is when,an expert told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday.
Another pandemic is virtually inevitable because of how fast the virus mutates,said John M. Barry,author of the book “The Great Influenza.” He is also a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities.
“A worst-case scenario is not necessary to justify far more expenditures on influenza,” Barry said. “The best-case scenario is bad enough to get the attention of any American.”
The flu kills 36,000 Americans in a normal year,and many more would die in a pandemic,Barry said. Pandemics,or worldwide epidemics,have occurred fairly regularly over the past 500 years,Barry said,with the longest interlude between outbreaks lasting 42 years.
It has been 37 years since the last flu pandemic hit in 1968.
“We have become more vulnerable to influenza,not less vulnerable,both in its economic impact and in the death toll,” Barry said. “Ironically,medical science has increased our vulnerability by its enormous advances that have increased the number of people living with impaired immune systems.”
Barry appeared with federal government witnesses before an appropriations subcommittee that overseas the Department of Health and Human Services. Lawmakers questioned some agency directors on parts of President Bush's $7.1 billion flu plan,which he unveiled Tuesday,criticizing a provision that would require states to pay roughly $500 million for anti-flu drugs.
“It almost seems then that they will be allocated based upon a state's ability to pay,” said Sen. Tom Harkin,D-Iowa. “How are you going to ask Louisiana right now to come up with the money for that? Take Mississippi – they've been hit hard.”
HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt told the committee that states should contribute,but the amount could be negotiated.
“Just like in a co-pay for a prescription,there's a need for co-pay states,” Leavitt said.
Sen. Arlen Specter,R-Pa.,the subcommittee chairman,also criticized the delay in the Bush administration sharing the flu plan with lawmakers.
“We need to find some better way to find out what the hell is going on because the president won't tell us,” Specter said. “We have a very high regard for what you people do,but you have to help us help you.”
Government health officials began drafting the plan in 1991. It calls for $4.7 billion for vaccines and $1.4 billion for antiviral drugs,among other costs. Other provisions call for updated quarantine laws and more collaboration to maintain civil order.