CDC offers perspective on White House flu severity scenario

Aug 26, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – A White House expert advisory group's report on influenza preparedness on Aug 24 contained many recommendations, such as appointing a flu czar, but its illness and death projections seem to be drawing most of the public's attention.

Federal health officials have previously said that the current mild-to-moderate severity of this year's pandemic H1N1 virus seems to be in line with seasonal flu, which causes about 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths each year.

However, a "plausible scenario" in the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report said 30% to 50% of the population could become infected, which could lead to 1.8 million hospitalizations and 30,000 to 90,000 deaths.

Yesterday at a media symposium in Atlanta, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) fielded several questions from reporters about the apparent mixed message coming from the federal government.

Anne Schuchat, MD, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters that the higher estimate from the White House advisory group is one of many planning scenarios and is based on mathematical modeling projections.

"Having a planning scenario is helpful. We welcome the report and are planning aggressively," she said, adding. "We don't anticipate that this [scenario] is likely, but we are prepared."

Glen Nowak, CDC media relations director, said the more dramatic scenario message might be helpful in turning the public's attention back to the H1N1 pandemic at a time when many experts predict a second wave of infections could begin, heralded by students congregating again in schools.

"Anything that helps break complacency is a useful tool," he said.

Tom Skinner, CDC spokesman, told reporters that the report presented a worst-case scenario that was used for planning purposes only. He and other CDC officials reiterated that federal experts agree that the virus is unpredictable and that it's impossible to make a reliable projection. "At the end of the day, we just don't know," he said.

See also:

Aug 24 CIDRAP News story "Presidential panel calls for planning czar, faster vaccine"

Aug 24 PCAST full report

CDC background information on flu-related deaths

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