U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health John Agwunobi: Plans Must Evolve with Science
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health John Agwunobi is heavily involved in the logistics and planning for a future pandemic.
The pediatrician and former Florida secretary of health recently spoke with Daily Herald staff writer Marni Pyke about preparedness, the role of hospitals and why individuals should care about this pending health crisis. The following is an edited transcript.
Q. What's the situation with avian flu? Could it become a pandemic?
A. I want to differentiate between avian flu and pandemic influenza.
There are millions of viruses out there. One of the viruses that infects birds is H5N1 and on occasion it infects humans. We have a vaccine for H5N1, and we're stockpiling it.
H5N1, however, is mutating over time and we have to begin deciding whether to stockpile future versions of the vaccine.
In the future there will be a virus that pops up and causes a pandemic. Now, that virus might be a cousin of H5N1, it might be a future generation that has mutated, or it might be a virus totally unrelated to H5N1.
What we need to do is to develop the capacity to immediately produce a vaccine for a pandemic virus whenever it occurs. We need to do this in such a way that we have 300 million doses, enough for every citizen within six months of a pandemic occurring.
Q. What are the odds of a pandemic occurring?
A. Pandemics have occurred many times in the past - three times in the last 100 years. They do occur and will occur in the future. Whether or not H5N1 is around, there will be a pandemic at some point.
We also need to recognize this will happen everywhere, it's a global phenomenon. Therefore it's important every part of the world prepare for and stay prepared for a pandemic. This should become part of our culture, part of the fabric of our society.
Q. How essential is it that hospitals follow the government's preparedness guidelines?
A. The checklist was not designed to be a cookie-cutter approach to preparedness for every organization. For hospitals that are confused or need guidance we offer the checklist.
But first we want them to look into their communities and ask "What will our role be?" Once they establish that, they need to figure out: "Are we ready? Do we have all the pieces we need?"
Each hospital should work with other hospitals. Hospitals aren't just islands. They need to figure out things such as, how many physicians are out there? Could they rely on those physicians to help or would they be asked to send physicians out into the community?
Q. How crucial is this planning process?
A. We're urging hospitals to, if they haven't already and fortunately most have, to start thinking about all-hazards preparedness. …