Severe flu season has senators evaluating ways to cope with pandemics

Senator Richard Burr, R- N.C, /Photo: Senate Health, Education Labor & Pensions

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) - Senators in the nation's capital held a hearing Tuesday to discuss public health threats and the country's ability to respond.

In Sept. 2018, the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act (PAHPRA) will be up for reauthorization. The law grants authority to "sustain and strengthen our Nation's preparedness for public health emergencies involving chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) agents, as well as emerging infectious disease threats," according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The law also allows for the buying and authorization of medical countermeasures, a part of the federal government that helps communication between federal agencies and public stakeholders to improve the emergency health preparedness.

Flu season has hit hard this year. Thirty-two states reported high patient traffic for a doctor or hospital visits, Sunday. The week before only 26 states reported an increase. The Flu outbreak this season is considered widespread by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the only state that has not seen widespread outbreak is Hawaii. The report by the CDC states there has been 30 deaths from the flu so-far, including 10 pediatric deaths.

Nearly 100 years ago the nation was hit badly with a super flu "Spanish" influenza outbreak.

"The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States," according to the CDC.

Since then medicine has improved to help combat influenza in its various strains but often requires research and development. The federal government has stuck a public-private partnership with pharmaceutical companies to accomplish this research, but it requires significant funding on a national scale.

The Senate Committee on Health Education Labor & Pensions held a full committee hearing to ask leading experts what the nation can do better prepare for a widespread health crisis.

Chairman of the committee Senator Lamar Alexander, R- Tenn., after making a few opening remarks permitted Senator Richard Burr, R- N.C., to preside over the hearing as he was part of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act (PAHPRA) legislation's inception in 2006.

"In the middle of the flu season, it is critical that we reauthorize the act before many of its provisions expire in September," Alexander said. "I hope we will do this in a bipartisan way and I expect that. That has been the tradition with the law and with this committee on almost all of our major bills."

The chairman added that the act provides a vital framework that enables the country to respond to a public health crisis.

"The act provides a public health preparedness framework that enables us to be prepared and able to respond to public health threats by ensuring that we have enough medicines to protect Americans and to ensure our hospitals and state and local health departments are prepared to respond to public health emergencies," Alexander said.

Senator Burr reminded the committee that they should remain diligent and utilize new innovated technologies help address these problems. More specifically understanding and improving emergency health response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

"The last hurricane season resulted in three major storms devastating many commutes raising new questions about our ability to manage and withstand multiple periods of response," Burr said. "We cannot let up on these efforts or lose sight of the urgency this mission demands. We must not get distracted by making changes to the laws that are outside of our focus of perfecting PAPA (Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act),"

Senator Bob Casey, D-Penn., presided as the committee's ranking member for Senator Patty Murray, D- Wash.

"Now more than ever now we must continue to build our nation's resiliency to health security threats. The threats that face our nation today are increasing in both frequency and intensity. It is critical to foster an advance innovation in drugs devices and diagnostics," Casey said.

The senator added that funding has decreased for the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act. Casey told the committee that this lack of funding will have a direct impact on hospitals and medical staffs.

"The impact of funding reductions means a decrease in the amount of time hospitals and medical staff have to plan and train for an emergency, Casey said. "It is very dangerous to wait for a threat to emerge to try and pass emergency funding bills we must be proactive, not reactive."

Hearing Witness Dr. Tom Inglesby M.D. is the director for the Center For Health Security Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He said the nation needs to strengthen its health care system preparedness to handle a larger complicity of patients.

"While there has been substantial progress in preparing for small disasters in the country the nation isn't ready to provide medical care in large catastrophes or big epidemics of contagious disease," Inglesby said.

He added that our public health system also needs to strengthen its ability detect and respond to threats and provide training for medical personnel, increase funding for medical countermeasure development and understand that biological threat that can inadvertently emerge from biological research.

Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health and witness Dr. John J. Dreyzehner M.D. said the focus of the PAPA legislation needs to keep in mind people make all good networks function in times of crisis.

What is health and medical emergency preparedness response and recovery? At root is it not stuff or equipment or plans. It is people," Dreyzehner said. "Many people think that equipment or supplies are the net but if you remember nothing else from my testimony today. I would like you to remember this…People. People not things are the net.

He added that while equipment and tools are still important because without them, public health response teams cannot be as effective.

Witness and Senior Vice President, Commercial Operations Seqirus, Co-Chair, Alliance for Biosecurity Brent MacGregor called pandemic influenza is one of the most urgent public health threats we face as a nation.

"Authorized funding for pandemic influenza has never been included in legislation. As a result, funding for critical BARTA (Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority) activities such as vaccine stockpiling, advanced research and development has been largely episodic since 2009," MacGregor said.

MacGregor suggested an annual authorization level of at least $535 million to support HHS' influenza pandemic activities.

Dr. Steven Krug M.D. is the head of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. He also is a Professor of Pediatrics, Northwestern University Feinberg School Of -Medicine. One-third of the deaths this year from the flu have been pediatric patients.

"Children account for twenty-five percent of the population and their unique vulnerabilities mean that preparedness and response activities should account for their distinct needs" Krug stated. "Children are not little adults and the factors a state, city, hospital, or community must consider when planning for children may differ when considering the care needs of infants versus preschool-aged children versus adolescents."
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