Health, emergency staff get drugs first in pandemic

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Health care and emergency services workers who might help sick people during an influenza pandemic should take antiviral drugs throughout the epidemic, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in new guidance released on Tuesday.

Employers such as hospitals should be responsible for stockpiling the drugs and designating who gets them, HHS said in its latest guidance.

People with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients, should also get so-called prophylactic antivirals, which means taking them before they ever get sick, HHS said.

Two antiviral drugs can both prevent and treat all forms of influenza A, including H5N1. They are Roche and Gilead Sciences Inc’s Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline and Biota Holdings Ltd’s Relenza.

“Planning and preparing for a pandemic influenza requires action by every part of society, including individuals and families, communities, and private sector employers as well as all levels of government,” Dr. Craig Vanderwagen, HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said in a statement.

“Employers will play a key role in protecting employees’ health and safety, which in turn reduces the impact of a pandemic on the nation’s health, the economy and society.”

HHS earlier encouraged employers to stockpile the drugs, which can both treat and prevent flu.

In July, HHS said about a million essential health care workers would be immunized first if a flu pandemic broke out in the United States.

Many public health experts agree some sort of influenza pandemic is inevitable, although no one can predict when it might come and how severe it may be.

It is also impossible to predict what strain of flu might cause it, although H5N1 avian influenza is the main suspect now. It has become entrenched in birds in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and possibly Africa.

While just 390 people have been infected since 2003 and 246 have died, experts fear H5N1 could acquire the ability to spread easily from human to human, setting off a pandemic that could kill hundreds of millions of people.

Reporting by Maggie Fox, editing by Jackie Frank