The Flu and You
Chicken soup may be good for the soul, but it does little for a flu-stricken body. On the plus side, it's easy to get. In Hong Kong there has already been a run on the antiviral drug Tamiflu. The drug can protect the healthy from contracting flu and, taken early, lessens the length and severity of the illness. Available evidence suggests it is an effective treatment for avian flu. A second antiviral, GlaxoSmithKline's Relenza, looks promising in early studies.
The World Health Organization is urging governments to follow the lead of the Hong Kong shoppers: "Stockpiling of drugs in advance is currently the only way to ensure sufficient supplies at the start of a pandemic." And with good reason, says Roche spokesman Terry Hurley. "Surge capacity will not meet demand in the event of a pandemic."
So far, 17 countries are stockpiling Tamiflu, but lagging countries could end up with too little, too late. Hong Kong has only enough to cover 5 percent of its population. The United States has 293 million people--and 2.3 million treatment courses.
Why delay? "Choosing an arbitrary number is probably not the most efficient way to spend public-health dollars," says physician Ben Schwartz, a science adviser in the National Vaccine Program. Among his concerns is Tamiflu's five-year shelf life: "If we stockpile enormous amounts and the pandemic doesn't occur within that time the drug would be worthless."
Instead, a group of 30 experts is charged with coming up with recommendations and "a list of groups that have a special priority, and it will be up to the government to decide how far down that list we want to go," he says. Making the cut: people with underlying conditions and those who perform essential services.
This story appears in the April 4, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.