tampabay.com

Public health experts urge legislators to stock antivirals to fight avian flu

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published April 28, 2007


The human and economic effects of an avian flu pandemic in Florida would be devastating, a coalition of public health experts said Friday in a last-ditch effort to persuade lawmakers to stockpile antiviral medications.

More than 5-million Floridians would be infected, and 149, 000 of them would die, the Coalition to Prepare Florida Now said, citing previous studies.

"The catchphrase of 'It's not a matter of if it will happen but when' really is true, " said Dr. Larry Bush, chief of infectious diseases at the JFK Medical Center in Atlantis. Bush treated the first victims of the 2001 anthrax attacks.

The coalition held a conference call Friday afternoon, urging lawmakers to dedicate almost $37-million to stockpiling antiviral drugs, which have been the only medicine proven effective in fighting the avian flu. That's the amount Gov. Charlie Crist recommended the state spend.

Lawmakers are expected to continue negotiating the differences in the House and Senate budget plans passed this month. But so far the compromises don't include the money.

"We zeroed it out, " said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Sunrise, adding there is a possibility that free surplus doses might be available from the federal government.

To encourage states to stockpile the drugs, which have an estimated shelf-life of five years, the federal government last year negotiated a contract with two drug companies to buy a national stockpile of the drugs, and to reimburse states for 25 percent of the cost if they also bought for their own stockpiles. Florida is the only state that hasn't agreed to participate, according to the federal government.

Some lawmakers have questioned whether spending the money on drugs that might spoil before they are used is the best use of health care dollars.

The mortality rate for avian flu is shockingly high: since 2003, 291 people have developed the avian flu. More than half of them, 172, died, according to the World Health Organization. The virus hasn't mutated into a form that can spread easily from human to human, but public health officials fear that is just a matter of time.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.