Saturday, October 08, 2005

Ratcheting up on bird flu

A hastily arranged 80 nation meeting in Washington. Alleged jawboning of vaccine makers. A high profile question at Monday's presidential press conference. Public warnings of an imminent threat from the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Yes, it's fair to say attention to bird flu has ratcheted up.
"I think what this is, is ratcheting this up," said Dr. Bruce Gellin, vaccine coordinator at the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services and coordinator of the federal influenza preparedness plan.

Experts have been warning since 2003 that the H5N1 avian influenza is the biggest current health threat to the world but policy efforts to battle it have only reached a peak in recent weeks. (Reuters)
Many welcome this new attention, as incredibly late as it is. Without Hurricane Katrina we'd probably be in the Persistent Vegetative State that characterized the previous five years of the Bush Administration regarding any threats not part of the Global War on Terrorism message. But despite the new attention, it is doubtful whether either the Administration or Congress will make much difference. The Senate has appropriated almost $4 billion in new bird flu funds, although Senator Stevens of Alaska, one of the pro-torture nine, is threatening to sink it in Conference with the House. Most of it, however, is for a big Tamiflu buy, not the wisest use, especially when the US is so far down the client list it won't get the new supply for some time.

The good part is that the issue has finally gotten the attention of state and local health authorities. Those agencies, whose budgets have been savaged by tax cut-induced budget cuts promoted by Republicans and some Democrats, have all they can do to keep up with urgent day-to-day needs. Prior to this they were unlikely and largely unwilling to devote scarce resources to preparing for a pandemic of uncertain timing and severity. They needed "the signal" from the feds it was an urgent matter. Neither HHS nor CDC gave that signal until this week, the kind of failure in leadership, vision and imagination that has become a hallmark of the Bush Administration.

If Congress is serious about gettng ready for a pandemic it should start immediately to repair our public health infrastructure by taking a sizeable chunk of change and send it to state and local health departments for core functions in public health: surveillance, vital records, immunization programs, neighborhood health clinics, maternal and child health, substance abuse, communicable disease, etc. The funds should be capitated (apportioned according to population) in the form of block grants with few if any strings attached.

To grease the skids, I suggest all health departments change their name to the Department of Public Halliburton.