Floridian Emergency Responders Urge Pandemic Flu Preparedness

April 30, 2007
A coalition of front-line health care providers, first responders and public health experts is urging legislators to prepare Florida against a pandemic avian flu.

The Coalition to Prepare Florida Now, composed of the Professional Firefighters of Florida, the Florida College of Emergency Physicians, infectious disease specialist Dr. Larry Bush and former Florida State Health Officer Dr. Charles Mahan, warned that lawmakers must take action to ensure Florida is not left unprepared when an avian flu outbreak strikes the United States.

The H5N1 virus, commonly known as avian flu, has already made the leap from wild birds to poultry, and has now sickened humans. As of March, the virus has infected 277 humans, resulting in 167 deaths - a 60 percent fatality rate. The World Health Organization fears the virus will continue to mutate and eventually spread from human to human. Once this happens, an international pandemic killing millions people will become inevitable, according to experts.

"During the last pandemic flu outbreak, the 1918 Spanish Flu, the virus infected a fifth of the world's population and killed 20 to 40 million people, including an estimated 675,000 Americans," said Bush, who treated victims of the 2001 anthrax attacks in Palm Beach County. "It's difficult to overstate the threat pandemic flu represents, or the urgency with which we must prepare for and counter this threat."

Catastrophic Financial and Death Toll

A major independent report recently released by the non-partisan Trust for America's Health warned that states most reliant on the entertainment and tourism industries would suffer the worst financial damage. The report also predicts that a pandemic flu would infect 5.25 million Floridians and kill 149,000 in the state.

"These numbers speak for themselves: the risk of inaction and under- preparedness could be catastrophic," said Mahan, "Especially when you consider our state's role in international tourism and as a transport hub linking North and South America, such a pandemic could easily
migrate to Florida, in a short time, from almost anywhere in the world."

Antivirals Can Help

Fortunately, Mahan said, the United States is not defenseless. Antiviral drugs can be very effective in mitigating the severity of the flu, and they represent the best available front-line defense, he said.

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends stockpiling enough antivirals to treat a quarter of the country's population. To accomplish this goal, the Bush administration and Congress are subsidizing the state's portion of the cost of purchasing courses of antiviral drugs.

"We won't learn that avian flu has reached the United States until a man or woman walks into an emergency department with what seems like a bad case of the flu," said Dr. David Siegel, president of the Florida College of Emergency Physicians. "By then, that virus will likely have already infected others, and it is imperative that doctors and public health professionals will have access to these vital drugs that represent our best weapons against this disease."

In a letter to the Florida legislature, the Coalition to Prepare Florida Now called on lawmakers to support Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's recommendation to adequately fund the state's defense against avian flu. According to the coalition, the Florida House of Representatives has budgeted $6 million to fund a portion of the antiviral medications needed to protect Floridians from the avian flu.

Nevertheless, this amount represents less than one-quarter of the amount requested by Crist to fund this priority.

"Just as the state has come to rely on insurance to mitigate the effects of calamitous hurricanes, Florida should prepare for the possibility of pandemic flu by stockpiling needed drugs as an insurance policy against disaster," said Randy Touchton of the Professional Firefighters of Florida. "We hope the legislature chooses to prepare Florida, and give our state's first responders the tools they need to meet this challenge head-on and save the lives of countless Floridians."

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