Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Examines Flu Season and Nation’s Preparedness

February 13, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC – The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), today held a hearing to discuss the current flu season, its impact on Americans and the nation’s preparedness and response efforts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Thomas Frieden, Food and Drug Administration Chief Scientist Dr. Jesse Goodman, and the Director of the Health Care Division at the Government Accountability Office, Marcia Crosse, provided an update on the severity of this year’s outbreak, examined preventative measures taken by the federal government and public, and offered suggestions for how to ensure proper preparedness for future seasonal and pandemic outbreaks.

“This year’s flu season came a little earlier than expected and it looks as though it will have been worse than average,” said Chairman Murphy. “This is particularly true in Southwestern Pennsylvania, which has the highest percentage of seniors in the country outside of Florida. Questions have been raised about vaccine effectiveness. How can we improve upon that and what efforts are currently underway in the government and the private sector to ensure that we do? We have also heard reports of spot shortages of vaccine and certain antiviral treatments. Yet, we know that, overall, vaccine and antiviral supply will still exceed demand. What role did the federal government play, along with its public health partners at the state and local level, in responding to these supply issues and what can we learn from these efforts going forward?”

According to Director Frieden, since October 1, 2012, 7,224 laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated hospitalizations have been reported and the impact on people 65 years and older has been especially tough. Frieden said, “The best tool we have for the prevention and control of influenza is influenza vaccine. We recommend yearly influenza vaccination.” Frieden confirmed that the overall effectiveness of this year’s vaccine has been 62 percent and acknowledged it could be improved. He also discussed issues related to this season’s supply stating, “At this point in the 2012-2013 influenza season, some vaccine providers have exhausted their vaccine supplies while others have remaining supplies of vaccine. The increased demand for vaccine in some communities has made it more challenging for some people seeking vaccination to locate vaccine. In light of these challenges, CDC is working with state immunization programs to implement strategies that make the best possible use of available influenza vaccines. These include guidance for finding available flu vaccine for purchase and local options for vaccine redistribution.”

Director Crosse indicated the federal government’s preparation and response has improved over the last decade through planning activities and communicating with the public to provide information where to get vaccines. However, Crosse explained, “when facing a typical influenza season, manufacturers must make decisions about how much vaccine to produce, providers must determine how much vaccine to order, and individuals—who may be influenced by a particular season’s perceived severity and media reports—make their own decisions about whether, when, and where to seek vaccination. These disparate factors, along with challenges inherent in the vaccine production process and influenza seasons that are unpredictable in terms of duration and severity, can present barriers to successfully making desired quantities of influenza vaccine available when and where it is needed.”

Chief Scientist Goodman described new technologies that may soon supplement the traditional seasonal vaccine and accelerate the development of vaccine manufacturing for future pandemic threats. He explained the benefits, saying, “In addition to helping us better prepare for influenza pandemics, these new production approaches and facilities will increase our nation’s agility and capacity to respond to other, unanticipated infectious disease threats, natural or man-made… These successes in developing increased domestic production capacity and novel non-egg-based production techniques are particularly important in enhancing readiness to rapidly produce large amounts of vaccine in response to an emerging pandemic.”