AMA urges pandemic preparedness

The threat of avian flu focuses attention on vaccine and antiviral issues.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted Aug. 8, 2005

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Chicago -- When John Van Etta, MD, a Duluth, Minn., internist, called his senator's staff to talk about avian influenza, the illness that has killed dozens of people in Southeast Asia, the reply he heard was, "What's that?"

Stories such as this one increasingly worry physicians and public health officials. They are concerned that though this flu strain could become a very real threat here and abroad, the medical and public health systems are not prepared.

In order to begin to address the issue, the AMA at its Annual Meeting in June called for adequate funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies to expand the nation's ability to produce and distribute vaccine and antivirals.

"Our concern is that we might be on the brink of a 1918 epidemic, and we're not ready," said Dr. Van Etta, a delegate from the Minnesota Medical Assn., who proposed the policy.

The AMA also will work to increase the number of people vaccinated during regular flu seasons and urge the development of innovative vaccine technologies.

Physicians at the Annual Meeting said this step was crucial even if avian influenza did not strike a great number of people, because a handful of cases could be just as crippling to the medical system.

"We don't need a pandemic of avian flu to shut down medical care in the United States," said John Abenstein, MD, an anesthesiologist and delegate from Rochester, Minn. "The demand by patients in terms of respiratory care -- critical care -- will be enough."

The AMA also plans to work to ensure that hospitals and skilled nursing facilities have systems in place for measuring and maximizing the rate of vaccination of its physicians and other health care workers. This step is in response to more and more scientific findings that unvaccinated workers can be a danger to their patients.

"Having ways to get health care workers vaccinated is important," said Victor C. Ching, MD, a urologist and alternate delegate from Upland, Calif.

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