Worldwide flu outbreak still a real fear, despite lull in attention
The alarming headlines have mostly faded, but make no mistake: a flu pandemic is still on its way.
That was the message delivered Monday in a small hearing room at the State House. Hardly any lawmakers were there to hear it; a few sent aides.
Dr. Stuart Weiss said Massachusetts is among the six states that have not stockpiled anti-viral drugs to treat the infected in such a pandemic.
While Weiss was testifying, in the House chamber down the hall lawmakers were debating how to balance the state budget. Among the budget items that could be cut is $2 million for anti-viral drugs.
“I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that we will have a pandemic in our lifetime, I just can’t tell you when,” said Weiss, chief executive of MedPrep Consulting Group, which advises companies on preparing for public health disasters.
Gov. Mitt Romney sought $36.5 million to add hospital beds and buy breathing machines and medication to prepare for a health crisis.
Pam Goins, an analyst with the Council of State Governments, said the $2 million would enable the state to buy about one-fifth of the anti-viral drugs it needs.
Weiss said the purchase would be a start, but “simply not enough.”
The spotlight on bird flu and its potential to mutate into an easily spread human strain has dimmed recently.
“Unfortunately, although we have moved on to other things, the virus really hasn’t,” Weiss said.
The most troublesome virus – H5N1 – has killed 28 people worldwide this year, and most of the people who became infected were younger than 40, he said.
No H5N1 infections have been found in North America.
Three pandemics killed millions of people in the 20th century. The most devastating, in 1918, killed between 20 million and 40 million as it swept the globe. Two million more died in Asia during outbreaks in 1957 and 1968.
Weiss said historical trends suggest that the next flu pandemic will occur by 2017.
Massachusetts health officials have said they want more evidence that the anti-viral drugs would be effective if a strain of influenza mutated in a way that enabled it to spread easily.
“There is a growing concern that resistance is developing to the medicines that are being used to treat influenza or any kind of pandemic,” Assistant Commissioner Thomas Lyons of the state Department of Public Health said in December to explain why the state opted out of a federal program to buy the medicine.
John P. Kelly may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.