Q&A with HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt: 'The Threat of an Influenza Pandemic Is Real'

Article excerpt

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is taking new steps to help Americans become more prepared for pandemic influenza. Recent efforts have included a national forum and leadership blog, and materials are scheduled to be released through a new campaign. The Nation's Health asked Michael Leavitt, HHS secretary, about pandemic flu preparedness recently.

Why is preparing for pandemic influenza so important? Is the United States really at risk? If so, who is the most vulnerable?

The threat of an influenza pandemic is real and will affect all Americans. It is not a question of "if" a pandemic will occur, but "when." While we can't be certain the H5N1 virus, currently a disease of birds in Asia, Europe and Africa, will spark a pandemic, we can be sure that pandemics will happen. They have happened in the past, and they will happen in the future.

The United States was overwhelmed by the 1918-1919 pandemic flu, which caused the deaths of at least 675,000 Americans. If a pandemic of similar severity occurred today, 90 million Americans could become ill, and nearly 2 million Americans may die. The most vulnerable have varied in different pandemics. In 1918, working-age adults were at highest risk of serious illness and death. In 1957 and 1968, young children and older adults had the highest rates of complications.

What is HHS doing to help Americans become more prepared for pandemic influenza? What's on the horizon as part of the new HHS national campaign?

The Department of Health and Human Services is launching a national campaign this fall to encourage as many Americans as possible to understand that the threat of a pandemic influenza is real and to actively engage in personal preparedness. This campaign is called "Take the Lead--Working Together to Prepare Now."

Throughout the course of the campaign, HHS will engage influential leaders from the business, faith-based, civic and health care sectors and help them confidently spread the word about the critical need for individual preparedness. Through these partnerships, the campaign will provide information, tools and support to help people across the country take steps to prepare.

HHS is currently developing toolkits which will be made available later this year. With easy to implement checklists, tools and ideas, the toolkit will educate and help Americans take the necessary steps to prepare. In the meantime, more information about pandemic planning can be found at www.pandemicflu.gov.

How is preparing for pandemic flu different than preparing for other emergencies? How are they related?

Pandemic planning is a shared responsibility between all levels of government, the public health community, businesses (and) community groups, as well as individuals and families.

Pandemics aren't like hurricanes. Hurricanes and other natural disasters strike in one place, do their damage and then the recovery begins. The whole nation can focus its resources on helping the stricken area after the disaster.

Pandemics don't strike just one area. They strike everywhere. Areas hit first can't depend on relief from elsewhere because the entire country will be affected, and areas that haven't been hit yet will be preparing their own defenses. …