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Devise better flu vaccine plan

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Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson is urging calm. More flu vaccine will be available by January, officials say. There is no need for seniors to stand in line for hours for the possibility they will receive a flu shot. For that matter, the Southern Hemisphere experienced a moderate flu season, so there's hope that the United States will, as well.

Without adequate amounts of flu vaccine to stave off the nasty malady, Americans are left to hope, wash their hands and be persistent in their search for a flu shot. Some people are traveling to Canada to get vaccinated. It's hardly the model of an effective public health strategy.

None of this was the intended policy, to be certain. About half of the nation's flu vaccine supply was wiped out by bacterial contamination at the manufacturing plant in England. But there's no back-up plan except to shop the globe for any other available vaccine. Some has been found, but the amount will, in no way, meet the demand.

Under normal circumstances, staying ahead of the flu is crucial for public health. Some 35,000 people die each year of medical complications linked to the disease. In an ordinary year, flu taxes the resources of the nation's emergency rooms. Some experts caution that the vaccine shortage could cripple the nation's health-care system because of a large influx of patients and limited resources to care for them.

Some of the more terrifying prospects could be the use of flu being as a weapon of bioterrorism. Or terrorists could unleash chemical weapons, biological weapons or a dirty bomb just when the health-care system already is maxed out caring for flu patients. While it sounds like the stuff of a science fiction movie, securing the homeland demands that the government consider every avenue of vulnerability.

Thompson says the nation has a large stock of anti-viral drugs that help decrease the duration of the flu. This supposes that people who contract the flu get the drugs when they are most effective, within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. It's a stop-gap measure, at best.

The federal government needs to include the flu vaccine as part of its cache of vaccines and antidotes intended to combat bioterrorism. The so-called "Bioshield" program spurs compa-

nies to develop vaccines and treatments for biological weapons by guaranteeing that the government will purchase them.

Meanwhile, hospitals and other health-care providers are devising contingency plans for the duration of the flu season and hoping for the best. But again, wishful thinking is a poor substitute for prudent planning.