Hawaii has billions to lose if swine flu spreads to state


POSTED: Wednesday, April 29, 2009

PRESIDENT Barack Obama and Gov. Linda Lingle used identical words in announcing strategies in response to the swine flu outbreak. The federal government and the front-line responders at the state level appear better equipped than ever to confront the health emergency and minimize a potential economic and human disaster.

In a speech Monday at the National Academy of Sciences, Obama called the spread of the flu “;a cause for concern”; and “;not a cause for alarm.”; In a news conference the same day, Lingle said, “;People should not be alarmed ... but they should be concerned.”;

Previous threats in this decade from SARS, dengue, West Nile virus and avian flu prompted the Bush administration to ask Congress for $7.1 billion to develop vaccines, pharmaceuticals and medical devices to respond to a pandemic, but $870 million of it never was funded.

Hawaii has enough antiviral medicine to treat one-fourth of the state's residents, but no vaccine has been developed specifically to combat the swine flu. A central part of the effort at this early stage—begun last Friday—is screening incoming airline passengers whose outward signs of illness catch the attention of pilots or flight attendants.

President George W. Bush asked for the funding after reading John M. Barry's “;The Great Influenza”; during his 2005 summer vacation. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times this week, Barry pointed out that in each of the four pandemics since 1889, about six months passed from the time the virus was first recognized and a second, more dangerous wave swelled. He estimated that at least four months will be needed to produce a specific vaccine in any volume. “;The race has begun,”; he wrote.

Hawaii's preparation for responding to a pandemic and other health emergencies has improved in recent years, according to the nonprofit Trust for America's Health. The state met eight of 10 indicators of adequacy measured last year, an improvement from 2005 ratings and a score surpassed by only a dozen states.

An outbreak as severe as the 1918 flu pandemic, which infected 12,000 people in Hawaii and caused 32 deaths, would infect 365,000 people in the islands and kill 10,000, according to the Trust for America's Health.

The economic stakes in Hawaii are higher than in any other state except Nevada, according to the organization. In a severe pandemic, according to a 2007 report by the organization, Hawaii could lose $3.6 billion, representing a 6.6 percent drop in the state's economy. States with economies relying on tourism and entertainment could be the hardest hit, it explained.