Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, August 12, 2005

Planning for influenza pandemic begins now


Hawai'i, we like to tell ourselves, is a "gateway" to and from Asia.

Fair enough, but this gateway role, which brings economic, social and cultural advantages, also has its downside.

One such downside, which demands attention, is that the Islands may become a "gateway" for new infectious diseases that establish themselves in Asia and then tend to spread around the world.

The most obvious example today is a virulent strain of avian flu that has killed more than 60 people. Scientists say this particular strain has the capability, if it develops the ability to spread easily from human to human, to outrace the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, which took 20 million to 50 million lives.

This would be a horrifying pandemic that would clearly outstrip other threats to human safety and welfare such as terrorism and AIDS.

In this context, it is encouraging that U.S. authorities have developed an avian flu vaccine that — pending further trials — might provide at least a modicum of protection against the potential pandemic.

While research continues, officials say they are far from ready to deploy the vaccine, as they do more typical vaccines.

One can only hope that the trials will prove conclusive and that this new vaccine can be put into the pipeline where it will do the most good, including for the elderly and other at-risk populations.

Meanwhile, Hawai'i is far from simply sitting back and waiting for help to come.

A vibrant public-private partnership — "Prevention, Response and Treatment of Emerging/Infectious Threats" coalition — involving the state Health Department, the Department of Defense, private biotech firms and the new Asia-Pacific Institute of Tropical Medicine at the UH medical school, is at work on a range of issues, from new ways of identifying diseases to new treatment options.

The goal here is to get ahead of the threat curve.

At the same time, there are any number of non-medical steps that can be taken or at least put on standby. These include quarantine strategies, standby plans to close schools or other places of mass congregation, limits on travel and the like.

A draft plan that deals with such issues is in circulation. It includes, importantly, a set of protocols that would help authorities identify people who might have been exposed to the flu at the point of entry into Hawai'i.

It is encouraging that science is moving forward on a vaccine for this and other threats. But waiting for scientific breakthroughs alone is false comfort.