A Cautionary Tale  pg. 7

The public health response to SARS proved that scientists are becoming more adept at mounting dramatic research responses to the sudden emergence of traumatic diseases. They are less skilled at maintaining public support while they prepare for the next viral pandemic, which typically surfaces every 50 years or so. Should such an incident take place, a well-oiled system for manufacturing and delivering vaccines will be crucial to saving millions of lives. Such a system does not yet exist.

If there is a plus side to the cloud of bioterrorism that hangs over the Western world, it is that governments are infusing money into public health to address potential threats of epidemics and pandemics. “The flu provides a good model for testing how well we respond to major outbreaks of disease,” Griffin says. “We now know much more about what we need to do and where the gaps in the system are.”

One of those gaps, she says, is the under-use of effective antiviral medications, which have tended to be under-prescribed by physicians and under-tested in various populations.

Webster echoes that sentiment, insisting, “We need to begin stockpiling antiviral flu medicine. Because flu strains mutate so quickly, it won’t help to stockpile flu vaccines, but the flu drug is effective against every single strain of flu we’ve tested it against. Legislators have to put that on their radar screens. The precursors, the viruses, for a pandemic like the one in 1918 are out there.”

Still, Edwards believes there is reason to hope. “The more we continue to prepare for a disease, and particularly for a bioterrorism event,” she says, “the less likely it is it will happen.”

Mary Beth Gardiner contributed to this story.

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