June 4, 2008 / 5:49 PM / 9 years ago

New US bird flu plan suggests more drug stockpiles

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON, June 4 (Reuters) - New U.S. government pandemic guidelines propose stockpiling millions more doses of the antiviral drug Tamiflu to help protect people from infection, and recommend that each household store protective masks.

For the first time they propose using the drugs Tamiflu and Relenza to prevent infection, and give guidelines to businesses that may want to buy the drugs in advance to treat or protect employees.

They also spell out how many face masks -- up to 100 for some commuters -- Americans should have on hand.

The U.S. government now has 50 million courses of antiviral drugs, with 10 pills in each course in the case of Tamiflu. States can buy 31 million more courses under a federal contract that subsidizes the cost, for a total of 81 million courses.

The proposals being floated for public comment could bring this number up to 195 million courses, said Dr. Ben Schwartz, a pandemic planner at the Health and Human Services Department who wrote most of the new guidelines.

They include details on using drugs to prevent infections.

"For prophylaxis of health care and emergency services workers, the responsibility for purchasing and stockpiling the drugs would primarily be on the health care organizations ... or on the emergency organizations that would be protecting their workforce," Schwartz said in a telephone interview.

The federal government would buy drugs to prevent flu among federal health workers in the Indian Health Service and the Veterans Affairs Department, he said.

ENTRENCHED VIRUS

The biggest pandemic threat now is from H5N1 avian influenza, which is entrenched in chickens and ducks in much of Asia and has broken out in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Although rare in people, it has killed 241 out of 383 infected in 15 countries since 2003.

Tamiflu, made by Roche AG ROG.VX and Gilead Sciences (GILD.O) and known generically as oseltamivir, and GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK.L) and Biota's BTA.AX Relenza, known generically as zanamivir, can treat regular seasonal flu and bird flu and might also prevent infection.

Several companies are making vaccines against H5N1 but it is unclear if they would work against a mutated pandemic strain and if there would be enough. And some other strain of flu may cause a pandemic.

"For the first wave of a 1918-like pandemic, antiviral treatment could prevent about 144,000 deaths and about 1.85 million hospitalizations," read the proposals, available on the Internet here

A separate proposal suggests purchases of face masks and specialized masks known as respirators.

"With proper precautions, a single caregiver can use the same respirator several times over a day for brief care visits with the same ill person in the household, so a stockpile of 20 respirators per household would be reasonable," reads the proposal, available here

"Pandemic outbreaks in communities may last 6 to 12 weeks," it added. "Persons who cannot avoid commuting on public transit may choose to purchase 100 facemasks for use when going to and from work."

A third proposal published here. advises employers who may want to buy drugs to protect workers. Roche said more than 300 companies have bought Tamiflu as part of their pandemic plans and hundreds more had contacted the company.

(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)



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