The U.S. government has a introduced a system to rate the severity of a potential influenza pandemic. Public health officials say it will help states and communities determine the appropriate level of preparation if the H5N1 bird flu or a similar virus spreads through the population. VOA's David McAlary reports.
The new U.S. flu severity index copies the five categories of the hurricane rating system. The director of the government's Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Julie Gerberding, says a pandemic that spreads rapidly among the people with a high death rate would be ranked highest at five, while the lowest intensity would earn the number one on the scale.
"Everyone knows what a category one hurricane is," said Julie Gerberding. "Everyone understands what a category four or five hurricane is. We have embedded in our minds some understanding of the difference in severity of a different level of planning that might be required and the different harm that could come from these kinds of different scenarios."
In a pandemic of the lowest severity, category one, national health authorities would recommend minimal protection measures such as washing hands, covering mouths while coughing and sneezing, and isolating sick patients. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt says a category five pandemic like the one in 1918 that killed many millions worldwide would elicit the severest protections, such as closing schools, canceling public meetings and isolating people who have come in contact with a flu patient.
"This document helps communities understand the appropriate steps that they need to follow depending on the severity of the pandemic," said Michael Leavitt. "These steps can help reduce the spread of the disease until a vaccine is available."
Centers for Disease Control quarantine official Martin Cetron says characterizing a pandemic's severity is a new and necessary planning concept. Until now, the chief consideration has been how close the threat has been in time and distance.
"We know quite well when you need to use measures of this sort that can be socially disruptive, attuning and balancing the severity of the threat with the types of interventions and tools in your toolbox are very important," said Martin Cetron. "
Health Secretary Michael Leavitt says the United States is better prepared for a flu pandemic than one year ago, but has much more work to do.
At a conference of flu experts outside Washington, Johns Hopkins University medical professor John Bartlett emphasized that U.S. hospitals, most of which are private, are a weak point in this gap. They operate for profit and he points out that they are financially marginal with only half the number of beds necessary for a severe pandemic.
"Maybe we could take care of a little pandemic, but for something that is like 1918 influenza, we don't come close to being able to manage." noted John Bartlett.
The vaccine forecast is better. The flu experts say several vaccines undergoing human trials show promising results that would predict their success in a pandemic.