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Aid in flu pandemic concerns health chief

Says means to help patients are flawed

WASHINGTON -- In the event of a flu pandemic or a bioterrorism attack, help could arrive via door-to-door mail delivery or from a local fire station, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said yesterday.

Leavitt, in an interview, said it was clear that the system of delivering medicines in the United States is inadequate in the event of an emergency.

He said it was ''in some ways an absolute certainty" that a flu pandemic would occur at some point in the United States.

''If it happens anywhere, there is risk everywhere," Leavitt added.

The federal government is particularly concerned about bird flu. Since 2004, that strain has sickened 109 people, 55 of whom have died, because people lack immunity to the virus.

Leavitt said the federal government was looking to stockpile 20 million doses of a bird flu vaccine and another 20 million doses of Tamiflu, an antiviral medication to treat the illness.

The vaccine, in human clinical trials, has created an immune response in those who had taken it, he said. Still to be determined, he said, is how much is necessary to produce a sufficient response.

Leavitt said that the government's goal is to have the medicine delivered within 12 hours of a decision to make it available, but that exercises have revealed flaws in the delivery system.

''We're finding that the distributions systems are not adequate to put medicines in the hands of people fast enough, so we're beginning to look at alternative ways to speed that up," Leavitt said.

''We're looking at having more points of distribution, for example. We're experimenting with having the postal service being able to deliver them, because they walk those routes every day."

He said other possibilities included using firehouses as distribution points.

Leavitt said that it would take four to six months to mass produce a vaccine for the avian flu, and that capacity is insufficient to produce both a vaccine for pandemic flu as well as avian flu.

''One of the difficulties is if in fact we end up with a pandemic flu vaccine needing to be produced, it does compromise our ability to produce both the annual flu and the pandemic flu vaccine," he said. ''We're in the process of doing aggressive contingency planning."

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