Influenza Pandemic:

Challenges Remain in Preparedness

GAO-05-760T: Published: May 26, 2005. Publicly Released: May 26, 2005.

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Vaccine shortages and distribution problems during the 2004-2005 influenza season raised concerns about the nation's ability to respond to a worldwide influenza epidemic--or influenza pandemic--which many experts believe to be inevitable. Some experts believe that the next pandemic could be spawned by the recurring avian influenza in Asia. If avian influenza strains directly infect humans and acquire the ability to be readily transmitted between people, a pandemic could occur. Modeling studies suggest that its effect in the United States could be severe, with one estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranging from 89,000 to 207,000 deaths and from 38 million to 89 million illnesses. GAO was asked to discuss surveillance systems in place to identify and monitor an influenza pandemic and concerns about preparedness for and response to an influenza pandemic. This testimony is based on GAO's 2004 report on disease surveillance; reports and testimony on influenza outbreaks, influenza vaccine supply, and pandemic planning that GAO has issued since October 2000; and work GAO has done in May 2005 to update key information.

Federal public health officials plan to rely on the nation's existing influenza surveillance system and enhancements to identify an influenza pandemic. CDC currently collaborates with multiple public health partners, including the World Health Organization (WHO), to obtain data that provide national and international pictures of influenza activity. Federal public health officials and health care organizations have undertaken several initiatives that are intended to enhance influenza surveillance capabilities. While some of these initiatives are focused more generally on increasing preparedness for bioterrorism and other emerging infectious disease health threats, others have been undertaken in preparation for an influenza pandemic. For example, in response to concerns over the past few years about the potential for avian influenza to become the next influenza pandemic, CDC implemented an initiative in cooperation with WHO to improve influenza surveillance in Asia. CDC has also implemented initiatives to improve the communications systems it uses to collect and disseminate surveillance information. In addition, CDC, the Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration have made efforts to enhance their coordination of surveillance efforts for diseases that arise in animals and can be transferred to humans, such as SARS and certain strains of influenza with the potential to become pandemic. While public health officials have undertaken several initiatives to enhance influenza surveillance capabilities, challenges remain with regard to other aspects of preparedness for and response to an influenza pandemic. In particular, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has not finalized planning for an influenza pandemic. In 2000, GAO recommended that HHS complete the national plan for responding to an influenza pandemic, but the plan has been in draft format since August 2004. Absent a completed federal plan, key questions about the federal role in the purchase, distribution, and administration of vaccines and antiviral drugs during a pandemic remain unanswered. Other challenges with regard to preparedness for and response to an influenza pandemic exist across the public and private sectors, including challenges in ensuring an adequate and timely influenza vaccine and antiviral supply; addressing regulatory, privacy, and procedural issues surrounding measures to control the spread of disease, for example, across national borders; and resolving issues related to an insufficient hospital and health workforce capacity for responding to a large-scale outbreak such as an influenza pandemic.

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