The global flu pandemic expected to return to the USA this fall may
infect as much as half the U.S. population, flooding hospitals with nearly
2 million patients and causing 30,000 to 90,000 deaths, according to the
first official forecast of the scope of the flu season now beginning.
The report, released Monday by the White House, was prepared by the
President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. It offers the
forecast as the most plausible of a range of scenarios that reflect the
potential effect of a new form of H1N1 flu, known as swine flu, which the
report calls "a serious health threat to the United States."
"While this is not the 1918 flu pandemic, it infects younger people
more, and serious complications do occur," says panel Co-chairman Eric
Lander, director of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. He warns that
infants and children, pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses are
at special risk of serious complications.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 2
million people nationwide have been infected with the virus and that 522
have died. Flu experts worry that cases will mount as youngsters return to
school and as cold weather drives people indoors. "We think it's very
likely cases will increase," says David Marens of the National Institute
of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
One of the council's goals was to use scenarios drawn from experience
to identify health concerns and guide the government's response. The
report concludes that the coming flu season will more likely resemble
1957, which killed 70,000 people, or 1968, when 34,000 died. The 1918
pandemic killed hundreds of thousands in the U.S.
"There's great uncertainty about what we're going to be seeing as this
develops," says White House homeland security adviser John Brennan.
The report calls for the government to intensify efforts to track
infections and hospitalizations and to advocate common-sense prevention.
Among them: making sure that sick people can get refunds to sporting
events and that sick children who rely on school lunches can get them
without infecting classmates.
The science advisers also urge the government to press vaccine makers
to speed production by one month by beginning to fill and distribute vials
before clinical trials are completed. Without accelerating vaccine
production, they say, the first doses may not become available until after
the swine flu season peaks. In response, the government has asked
manufacturers to put vaccine in vials "as soon as they are ready," the
The report asserts that an influx of flu patients may clog hospital
emergency rooms and intensive-care units. "It's possible that at a time of
peak demand, 50% to 100% of ICU beds in an area might be used for
influenza cases," Lander says. "They're often close to capacity without