Flu pandemic is possible, official says
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Flu pandemic is possible, official says

New York Daily News | August 31, 2005

An official of the state Department of Health raised the possibility yesterday of a worldwide outbreak of the avian flu, citing the shortage of vaccines in recent years and the ability for the virus to mutate and travel globally.

Barbara Wallace, director of communicable disease control for the agency, told health professionals at the Nassau County Bar Association in Mineola that in the event of a pandemic - or widespread outbreak - a flu shot would not be immediately available. Consequently, members of the general population may have to receive more than one anti-viral shot to offset the effects of the virus, she said.

Wallace stopped short of predicting a pandemic. But, given that vaccine supplies are "unpredictable," she urged local health officials to remain vigilant. "We're making sure people are talking," Wallace said. "It's not to scare people, but to get people used to the idea."

To prepare for an outbreak, Wallace said, state officials have increased surveillance of the flu virus and established stockpiles of anti-viral drugs and vaccines.

An influenza pandemic would arise if a new form of the virus were to spread to the overall population and there were no vaccines to prevent it. In the 20th century there were three major pandemics, the last one in 1968 resulting in 34,000 deaths.

"Clearly the transportation for something to move much quicker is there these days," Wallace said, referring to the recent SARS and bird flu epidemics. "Something that took months to move from Asia to the United States could happen overnight."

Last year's vaccine shortage has caused local officials to address the issues sooner.

"We're hopeful that a pandemic would never come here, but I'm concerned about a flu vaccine again this year, because the resources have not been as good as they should be," said Norma Henriksen, acting chairman of the Board of Health for Nassau County.

Lauren Barlow, a public health nurse coordinator in Suffolk County, said health officials should have a better sense of the vaccine supply by September or October. "We expect to have at least as much vaccine as we did last year," she said.

According to a presentation by Barlow, in an estimated worst-case scenario, a flu pandemic could lead to an estimated to 14,916 flu-related hospital admissions a week and 2,609 hospital deaths in New York State. The report excluded New York City.

Some local health officials are also seeking help from the Medical Reserve Corps, an all-volunteer group of health professionals that helped distribute new shipments of the vaccine in Long Island last year.

"Based on the problems we had last year with the flu vaccine shortage, that's certainly something that we are very concerned about and we may need our medical reserve force," said Shelly Schechter of Nassau County's department of public health.



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