Experts at HHS webinar cite key pandemic planning issues

Oct 29, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today hosted an online conversation among experts, government officials, and members of the public that touched on emerging issues in pandemic planning, such as anticipating supply chain interruptions and keeping the momentum going during tough economic times.

At the beginning of the webcast, HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt made some opening remarks that focused on what the agency has accomplished, especially since the release of the HHS's Pandemic Influenza Plan in 2005.

Leavitt also spoke to the transitions that will likely occur over the next few months as the Bush administration winds down and a new administration takes over. He said during his tenure, the HHS has planned for 15 different disaster scenarios, including pandemic influenza.

"We're due for a pandemic, but regrettably, we're still somewhat underprepared," he said. Leading the nation's pandemic preparedness efforts has required a delicate balance, Leavitt added. "You want to stimulate preparedness, but not panic."

He said two events loom large during his years as HHS secretary: the re-emergence of H5N1 avian influenza virus and hurricane Katrina. The storm response was, "a remarkable shakedown of our national response plan," Leavitt said.

In terms of pandemic preparedness, Leavitt emphasized a list of the agency's accomplishments, which include an H5N1 vaccine with aggressive efforts under way to expand vaccine production technology and capacity, an antiviral stockpile that has been amplified by a state purchase incentive plan, new diagnostic testing systems, and an array of regional pandemic planning summits and formal exercises.

"I think we can finish our service better prepared, especially since 2005, but there is still a great deal to do," he said.

Leavitt said he has four recommendations for the next HHS secretary, "sort of a note on the desk," he said:

  • Finish work on new vaccine facilities.
  • Strongly defend the global influenza virus-sharing network.
  • Continue work on countermeasure distribution, which he said is currently the "Achilles heel" of bioterror response planning.
  • Remind states, businesses, and families about their responsibility to help prepare for an influenza pandemic.

On the vaccine-sharing issue, Leavitt said he understands the concerns that Indonesia and other countries have about access to affordable H5N1 vaccines, but he said Indonesia's apparent demand of financial compensation for sharing virus samples is a "dangerous proposition" that could open the door to endless demands.

The compensation demand promotes a vaccine scarcity mentality, Leavitt said, "but we need to pursue an abundance mentality."

After Leavitt spoke he joined the panel discussion group, which included Maggie Fox, health and science editor for Reuters news service, Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, which publishes CIDRAP News, and William Raub, PhD, Leavitt's science advisor.

Some of the online viewers asked the panelists how individuals and corporations can better prepare for a pandemic. Leavitt and Osterholm advised viewers to keep the issue alive by keeping dialogues on the topic going with local and state government officials.

Osterholm said the private sector has so far failed in its pandemic planning efforts, because businesses haven't taken their plans to the next level, such as establishing back-up plans in case supply chains collapse, which could have more severe effects than the pandemic virus itself. "They have to play like a chess master, and plan the next 8 to 10 moves down the board," he said.

See also:

HHS Pandemic Influenza Plan

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