December 8, 2005

Hospitals may help spread flu pandemic

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. hospitals could contribute to
the spread of influenza during a pandemic because most do not
follow good hygiene practices, a group reported on Thursday.

Their report, combined with a Congressional Budget Office
report showing a pandemic could cost the U.S. economy $675
billion, adds to an increasingly dire picture being painted of
what a bird flu pandemic would look like in the United States.

U.S. officials continued to urge states and businesses to
get ready for an outbreak of serious disease, issuing a
checklist of preparations, while Congress wrestled with funding
a federal plan before the end of the year.

The H5N1 avian influenza spreading through poultry in Asia
and parts of Europe, including Ukraine, is considered the worst
threat now. It has killed 69 people and infected 135, but a few
mutations could turn it into a virus that spreads easily and
quickly among people.

Many reports have shown that hospitals can be a source for
spreading such diseases, because health care workers fail to
follow even basic hygiene practices such as washing their hands
after touching any patient or piece of equipment.

A report from the National Center for Policy Analysis
predicted that unless hospitals tighten procedures quickly,
they could contribute to the spread of H5N1.

"Shoddy infection control is poor preparation for flu and
poor homeland security as well," said Betsy McCaughey, a former
lieutenant governor of New York who heads the Committee to
Reduce Infection Deaths, a group that campaigns about hospital
infections and which helped write the report.

A separate report, from the U.S. Congressional Budget
Office, shows that a bird flu pandemic would cost the U.S.
economy $675 billion if 30 percent of the population were
infected -- as has been the case in the past three pandemics.


U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee
Republican, said the report assumed a 2.5 percent mortality
rate, that the pandemic would last for three months and that 30
percent of the workforce would become ill and miss three weeks
of work.

It predicted people would stay home and reduce turnout at
restaurants, shopping malls, sporting events, churches and
schools, with demand falling by 80 percent for entertainment,
arts, recreation, restaurants, and lodging.

"Retail trade would fall by 25 percent," Frist said in a
speech at the National Press Club in Washington. "Together, the
supply and demand impacts would result in a 5 percent reduction
in GDP (gross domestic product)," Frist said.

The report supports other predictions that have been made
about the potential effect on the U.S. economy. The World Bank
has predicted a pandemic could cost the global economy $800
billion a year.

U.S. President George W. Bush released a $7.1 billion bird
flu plan in November but Congress has yet to fund it. Frist
said he hopes for legislation before the recess later this
month, but many conservatives are afraid the deficit is already
too big and want to make cuts to pay for the spending.

One part of the plan involves building stockpiles of
influenza drugs, which would not provide a cure but which might
help make the most vulnerable patients less ill.

Roche AG said it was moving ahead with plans to license
various aspects of producing its drug, Tamiflu, to some generic
manufacturers. New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat who
has been pressing the company on this issue, said the company
had reached agreements with two generic makers but the company
said it had no details to release about this yet.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington)