A decade ago avian flu was a hot topic in Washington D.C., and pandemic concerns sparked aggressive (and often mandatory) preparedness measures at the federal, state, and local levels. The HHS was stockpiling antivirals, hospitals and EMS units were holding frequent drills, and even large corporations were gaming how they would operate in a pandemic environment.
Over the next few years the H5N1 virus seemed to stabilize, however, and we experienced an H1N1 pandemic that reassuringly failed to live up to its early hype, and on top of that we’ve endured a 7 year global economic downturn - all of which has chased pandemic concerns from headlines and our top priorities.
These past eight months, however, have shown that while obscured by other threats, the pandemic threat has not gone away. Not only have we watched the largest outbreak of H5N1 on record in Egypt this past year, we suddenly find ourselves waiting for the return of HPAI H5 this fall in both North America and Europe - and while it has remained an epidemic in birds so far – it has a pedigree that raises concerns for public health.
With 50 million dead birds this spring, and prospects of seeing more of the same this fall and winter, today a bipartisan committee from Congress has released a statement, and sent letters, to the HHS and the GAO asking for clarification on how the nation is preparing in light of these threats.
First the statement from the Energy & Commerce Committee of the US House of Representatives, followed by links to the letters.
June 29, 2015
WASHINGTON, DC – Bipartisan leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee today sent a letter to Dr. Nicole Lurie, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, seeking details regarding the administration’s “emergency preparedness in response to the spread of avian influenza.”
Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-PA), and Ranking Member Diana DeGette (D-CO) write, “The U.S. is currently suffering from the worst avian influenza outbreak in history.” The United States Department of Agriculture has identified two sub-types of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) that “are spreading, causing widespread economic devastation and the deaths of tens of millions of birds.”
The bipartisan leaders continue, “Influenza has the ability to mutate and potentially threaten public health. On June 2, 2015, the CDC issued a health advisory stating that it ‘considers these newly-identified HPAI H5 viruses as having the potential to cause sever disease in humans’ and made recommendations to clinicians, state health departments, and the public. ... HPAI H5 viruses also have the potential to threaten public health indirectly through pressures on the flu vaccine development process, which still mostly requires chicken eggs.”
The leaders are seeking information regarding the administration’s efforts to prevent disruption to the development of the flu vaccine and to prepare local communities to deal with the potential spread to humans.
Upton, Pallone, Murphy, and DeGette also sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office seeking a review of the federal preparedness efforts surrounding this rapidly spreading disease.
June 29, 2015
Excerpt: Influenza has the ability to mutate and potentially threaten public health. On June 2, 2015, the CDC issued a health advisory stating that it ‘considers these newly-identified HPAI H5 viruses as having the potential to cause sever disease in humans’ and made recommendations to clinicians, state health departments, and the public. ... HPAI H5 viruses also have the potential to threaten public health indirectly through pressures on the flu vaccine development process, which still mostly requires chicken eggs.
To read the letter to the GAO, click here.
To read the letter to HHS, click here.
Among the questions asked of the HHS are:
Pandemic preparedness is something I hearken back to in this blog often, and so I’m encouraged that Congress is once again taking the threat seriously. But it is also imperative that individuals, families, communities and the private sector plan for pandemic disruptions as well.
Whether it is a mutated HPAI H5 virus carried by migratory birds, or one of the myriad of emerging novel flu viruses gaining traction around the world, a new coronavirus like MERS , or virus X – the one we haven’t identified yet – the odds are great that we’ll see another (possibly severe) pandemic sometime in the future.
The time to consider how to deal with a pandemic is now, while the most options for preparedness remain open. A few of my more recent pandemic preparedness blogs include: