THE MAGAZINE

Pandemic Threat: Nothing to Sneeze at

By Sherry Harowitz

When an outbreak of group C meningococcal invasive disease sickened 10 and caused two fatalities in Chicago this year, officials took action to avert a potential epidemic. They launched a massive vaccination campaign, focusing on the at-risk group—children 11 to 18. More than 7,000 children got vaccines in two weeks, and no additional children died.

That success story was relayed by David R. Gifford, M.D., director of the Rhode Island Department of Health at a congressional hearing on public health threat preparedness. Mass vaccination “is one of the core capabilities that health agencies across the country are working to develop,” said Gifford.

In this month’s cover story, Mario Possamai discusses what the private sector should be doing to prepare for public health emergencies, such as a pandemic. Possamai warns against complacency about a threat that is no less real now that it has ceased to feature prominently in the headlines.

In a survey conducted in conjunction with Possamai’s feature, Security Management readers indicated that the issue is being taken seriously. The news is similarly positive with regard to what the public sector is doing. For example, every state now conducts year-round influenza surveillance, and all states routinely test—at least in tabletop exercises—their public health department’s ability to respond to emergencies, according to Rear Admiral W. Craig Vanderwagen, M.D., of the Health and Human Services Department (HHS), who also testified at the hearing.

Healthcare facilities can now electronically track bed and resource availability nationwide. And a system for registering volunteer health professionals has been set up to facilitate the movement of medical professionals to where the need is greatest in an emergency.

HHS is also developing a system called MedMap that will give real-time nationwide information about other physical resources, such as assembly centers, as they come online or get filled to capacity. Another HHS effort is aimed at quadrupling our capacity for domestic manufacturing of vaccines by 2012 to meet emergency demand. In addition, states are well on their way to meeting their 2008 goal of stockpiling 31 million treatment courses of antivirals for influenza. These are but a few of the initiatives underway.

Much still remains to be done, however, to ensure national medical readiness. The Government Accountability Office recently reported that state pandemic plans have major gaps in critical areas, such as how to work with the private sector to ensure continuity of essential services in a pandemic.

Worse, laments Gifford, we are at risk of losing gains made over the last decade, because key federal program funding is down 25 to 33 percent from 2005, making it harder for states to maintain surveillance systems, labs, and other components of medical readiness. The impact of those shortfalls won’t become apparent until it really matters.

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