Influenza Pandemic:

Challenges in Preparedness and Response

GAO-05-863T: Published: Jun 30, 2005. Publicly Released: Jun 30, 2005.

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Shortages of influenza vaccine in the 2004-05 and previous influenza seasons and mounting concern about recent avian influenza activity in Asia have raised concern about the nation's preparedness to deal with a worldwide influenza epidemic, or influenza pandemic. Although the extent of such a pandemic cannot be predicted, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), it has been estimated that in the absence of any control measures such as vaccination or antiviral drugs, a "medium-level" influenza pandemic could kill up to 207,000 people in the United States, affect from 15 to 35 percent of the U.S. population, and generate associated costs ranging from $71 billion to $167 billion in the United States. GAO was asked to discuss the challenges the nation faces in responding to the threat of an influenza pandemic, including the lessons learned from previous annual influenza seasons that can be applied to its preparedness and overall ability to respond to a pandemic. This testimony is based on GAO reports and testimony issued since 2000 on influenza vaccine supply, pandemic planning, emergency preparedness, and emerging infectious diseases and on current work examining the influenza vaccine shortage in the United States for the 2004-05 influenza season.

The nation faces multiple challenges to prepare for and respond to an influenza pandemic. First, key questions about the federal role in purchasing and distributing vaccines during a pandemic remain, and clear guidance on potential priority groups is lacking in HHS's current draft of its pandemic preparedness plan. For example, the draft plan does not establish the actions the federal government would take to purchase or distribute vaccine during an influenza pandemic. In addition, as was highlighted in the nation's recent experience responding to the unexpected influenza vaccine shortage for the 2004-05 influenza season, clear communication of the nation's response plan will be a major challenge. During the 2004-05 influenza season, state health officials reported that mixed messages created confusion. For example, CDC advised vaccination for persons aged 65 and older, and at the same time a state advised vaccination for persons aged 50 and older. Further challenges include ensuring an adequate and timely supply of influenza vaccine and antiviral drugs, which can help prevent or mitigate the number of influenza-related deaths. Particularly given the length of time needed to produce vaccines, influenza vaccine may be unavailable or in short supply and might not be widely available during the initial states of a pandemic. Finally, the lack of sufficient hospital and health care workforce capacity to respond to an infectious disease outbreak may also affect response efforts during an influenza pandemic. Public health officials we spoke with said that a large-scale outbreak, such as an influenza pandemic, could strain the available capacity of hospitals by requiring entire hospital sections, along with their staff, to be used as isolation facilities.

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