Defending New Jersey
from an Influenza Pandemic
by Congressman Rodney P. Frelinghuysen
Republican, District 11
One year ago, Secretary Mike Leavitt of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spoke to a group of state and local officials gathered in New Jersey. His remarks were frightening. He spoke of the potential for thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of infections. He spoke of overwhelmed doctors and hospitals, of banned public gatherings, of mass graves.
This was not a doomsday scenario—this was the history of the Spanish Flu pandemic in New Jersey in 1918. Perhaps the closing lines of his remarks were most haunting: “When it comes to pandemics, there is no rational basis to believe that the early years of the 21st century will be different than the past. If a pandemic strikes, it will come to New Jersey.”
Since 2003, when the first human cases of Avian Influenza, also known as H5N1, were recorded by the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of cases and the number of deaths has increased each year. So far, these human infections have been limited to nations far from our shores—Vietnam, Indonesia and Egypt. This, however, should not make us complacent. Indeed, the United States has been working to ensure that our nation is prepared should a pandemic reach our shores.
Avian flu, also known as bird flu, has swept across Southeast Asia and, in animal populations, is now moving into Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Since 2003, the disease has infected almost 300 people world-wide, killing more than 170. Experts at the WHO indicate that, “the world is now closer to another influenza pandemic than at any time since 1968, when the last of the previous century’s three pandemics occurred.”
Avian flu has not yet mutated into a form that can be easily spread from human to human. Yet, given how easy it is to board a plane and fly from Hong Kong or Russia to the United States, health experts are fearing and preparing for the worst.
Most recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the approval of the first U.S. vaccine to protect humans from the H5N1 influenza virus. This vaccine could offer early limited protection in the months before a vaccine tailored to the specific strain of the virus could be developed and produced.
The vaccine, which will not be sold commercially but instead purchased by the federal government, is an important advance which will aid national readiness. This is especially important as the National Strategic Stockpile of antiviral medications still only covers about six percent of the American population, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Recently, Frances Fragos Townsend, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, issued a progress report on the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan. More than 92 percent of all actions outlined in the plan which were due within six months of the Strategy’s release are complete. Progress is being made on those action steps which are due to be completed within nine, 12, and 24 months.
Among the actions completed are statewide pandemic planning summits. In May 2006, Secretary Leavitt, representatives of several federal agencies, and New Jersey officials gathered to review and hone the state’s pandemic response plan. Such planning is vital to ensure that the state is prepared for the 1.5 million outpatient visits, 40,000 hospitalizations, and 8,000 deaths the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services estimates could potentially occur in the event of an influenza pandemic.
As part of the President’s plan to mobilize the nation to prepare for an influenza pandemic, New Jersey will receive more than $8 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to accelerate and intensify current planning efforts for pandemic influenza and to test their plans. And the President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 budget contains more than $1 billion to improve pandemic preparedness, including the development of vaccines and purchase of antivirals.
Of course, our municipalities and counties must also prepare their citizens for the possibility of an avian flu pandemic. As the National Strategy Implementation Plan reminds us, “Pandemics are global events, but individual communities experience pandemics as local events.” Early and proactive planning can ensure that state and local governments are prepared to implement measures, such as school closures and suspension of public gatherings, to halt the spread of a pandemic flu. This planning should also include the business community, Offices of Emergency Management, and first responders, including municipal police, fire departments, Emergency Medical Technicians, and health departments so that essential services can be provided, even in the face of sustained and significant absenteeism.
To learn more about what local officials can and should do, I encourage you to visit www.pandemicflu.org and review the Community Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Mitigation and other documents available there.
Lately, the prospect of a pandemic flu seems to have dropped out of the headlines. In our busy lives, most of us don’t have much time to devote to thinking about a possible pandemic. This doesn’t mean, however, that the threat is reduced, or that preparation is any less important. Whether or not avian flu is the world’s next pandemic, we must heed the warnings of health experts and take action now to prevent the health crisis that is happening in Asia from migrating here to America in the future.