Friday :: Dec 12, 2003

Bush Flops On Bioterrorism and Flu Vaccines

by Steve

Over two years after the Bush Administration criticized the Clinton Administration for not putting needed investments into the nation’s public health system to deal with the threat of bioterrorism, the nation finds itself unable to grapple with something as annual and commonplace as influenza. Although this year’s outbreak has yet to reach epidemic stage, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is now reporting that the current outbreak, which has already claimed dozens of lives especially children, has now led to reports of cases in all fifty states.

The CDC under the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson, who obviously has spent way too much time “reforming” Medicare lately and not enough time on the nation’s public health, reports serious shortages of flu vaccine. As a result of regrettable consolidations and mergers in this industry, there are only two flu vaccine makers in the United States, Aventis Pasteur and Chiron. As the two firms find themselves possibly millions of vaccines short this year, the firms had to eat almost fifteen million doses last year after the firms and the DHHS grossly overestimated demand. As a result of that mistake, one firm left the market (Wyeth). How is it possible for the firms and the government to have so terribly underestimated the demand for vaccines this year at a time when the CDC was encouraging more vaccinations and had total responsibility for the purchasing and distribution of vaccines to state health departments?

The CDC is buying an additional 250,000 vaccines, but that is not expected to be enough to meet the demand still remaining, estimated to be at least several million. You could ask why the government doesn’t have reserve stocks of vaccine for just such an occurrence. Because government health officials guessed terribly wrong this year, and because Congress doesn’t allocate money for reserves.

But it should not be surprising than an administration that cannot manage something more commonplace as annual flu outbreaks also can so easily fall down in meeting its own rhetoric on preparing against bioterrorism.

One year after President Bush sought to energize the nation's bioterrorism preparations with an unprecedented smallpox vaccination campaign, the program has all but ground to a halt. A report released yesterday, meanwhile, finds that only two states -- Florida and Illinois -- are prepared to distribute and administer vaccines or medicines that would be needed in the event of a major outbreak or attack.

Fewer than a dozen states have written plans for dealing with other public health threats such as pandemic flu, the report added, and most remain ill-prepared for any large-scale emergency.

After two years of work and $2 billion in federal aid, "states are only modestly better prepared to respond to public health emergencies than they were prior to Sept. 11, 2001," the Trust for America's Health, a nonpartisan, nonprofit health advocacy group, concluded.

Despite Bush's high-profile call on Dec. 13, 2002, for the immunization of millions of health care workers and emergency responders, the number vaccinated has been stuck at 38,700 for months.

State budget cuts, personnel shortages and red tape were the chief reasons identified by the Trust for the spotty progress.

Jerome M. Hauer, the former Bush administration bioterrorism preparedness chief who now runs a terrorism response center at George Washington University, said he is concerned that hospitals have not done enough to prepare to handle mass casualties and that states are having trouble hiring specialists such as epidemiologists and laboratory technicians.

He and Larsen criticized CDC Director Julie L. Gerberding for recently denying that the administration had pursued a nationwide smallpox immunization program, calling her comments "a very clever political move to distance herself from a failing program."

When Bush announced the program -- he was among the first people to be inoculated -- the administration said it intended to immunize nearly 500,000 public health and hospital workers by the end of February this year. The plan called for vaccinating millions of police officers and firefighters by spring, and by summer, Bush promised, any American who insisted would be able to receive the vaccine. That has not happened.

So it appears that virtually nothing has improved in nearly four years, even with 9-11 and the Bush rhetoric and funding. I guess there is a lesson here. How can we expect these guys to walk their talk on bioterrorism when they can’t even adequately deal with annual influenza outbreaks?

Steve :: 8:59 PM :: Comments (5) :: Digg It!