Feds Announce Flu Plan, But Will It Work?
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, we'll check in on the children affected by Hurricane Katrina.
First, though, the White House is unveiling its strategy for dealing with a bird flu outbreak. There are more than 300 actions in the plan, including how to prevent the spread of the disease, who will be vaccinated first, and what should businesses do in the event of a pandemic.
Joining us to discuss the plan is Laurie Garrett. She's senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. And tell us more about some of the specifics in this plan, please.
Ms. LAURIE GARRETT (Senior Fellow for Global Health, Council on Foreign Relations): Well, the plan is not terribly different from things that have been released by the federal government in draft form for several months.
The one good news thing is that there's greater emphasis placed on the dire need to develop rapid ways to detect who actually has the flu and who doesn't. Our current technology methods are woeful in the extreme, require very sophisticated laboratories.
But there's no specific line item budget commitment to that effort. So the effort is nascent, to say the least.
As far as the overall picture, it still depends heavily on the development of two technologies that currently are woeful in the extreme. One is an effective vaccine, which we don't have, and the other is the use of a drug called Tamiflu, or ally drugs like Relenza--to be taken on a prophylactic basis by people as if these could somehow be a substitute for vaccination.
I'm very shocked, actually, to see that the government continues to have a heavy dependency on these drugs, given that we now have numerous clinical studies published in recent issues of the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, Science and Nature, the most credible scientific publications in the world--clearly showing that these drugs are of limited efficacy and could actually make matters much worse from a public health point of view because they would inadequately medicate individuals, leaving them feeling well enough to go back to work, go back to school, go back into crowded situations, but, in fact, still carrying virus and able to pass it on to other people. So that's a little bit disappointing.
BRAND: So aside from that, the plan actually looks at what would happen after an outbreak. And from the limited amount that I've read about it, it says, basically, stay home and wash your hands and please don't spread it.
Ms. GARRETT: The good news, I guess, is that the government has now realized that there are going to be tremendous limits to what government of any level, anywhere--whether it's city, state, or federal--can actually do in a bona fide virulent flu pandemic.
If such an event occurs, our armamentarium right now is very limited. We just don't have vaccines. We don't have good drugs. We don't have instant cure-alls or things that we can give to hospital personnel to protect them.
So the best option, yes, is to tell employers, limit your expectations of your employees. Don't make them come to work. In fact, figure out now--whether you're running a university and you're teaching students or you're running a major business of some kind--figure out now how can you do your work with a minimum number of people at the office or at the work place or at the school, and a maximum number telecommuting, if you will.
Of course, industries such as restaurants and service industries that are directly related to people will probably shut down, at least temporarily, because they won't have any customers. Nobody in a pandemic is going to want to go to McDonald's or your local restaurant.
But for banking, for the things that are essential to the viability of our nation, the basic computer processing, the maintenance of the Internet, the maintenance of the international monetary system, so that when you go to an ATM, cash actually comes out, when you try to use your credit card, it actually gets processed, all these will have to be maintained somehow.
BRAND: Laurie Garrett is a senior fellow for global health of the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you very much.
Ms. GARRETT: Thank you.