A public health nurse prepares a dose of H1N1 vaccine at the Balboa Park Community Center in Encino, California in this October 23, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Mark Boster/Pool/Files
By JoAnne Allen
WASHINGTON, Dec 16 (Reuters) -- The U.S. response to the H1N1 pandemic has been as good as can be expected given the recession but cuts in public health spending exposed vulnerabilities, according to a report released on Tuesday.
Layoffs and spending cuts in the public health sector weakened U.S. efforts to battle the pandemic, which has killed an estimated 10,000 Americans, the nonprofit Trust For America's Health found.
"Trying to respond to the pandemic in the middle of the worst economic climate since the Great Depression has meant that we were asking public officials to do more with less and budgets and staff were stretched well beyond their limits," the group's deputy director Rich Hamburg told reporters.
More than half of states -- 27 -- cut public health funds from 2008 to 2009, while federal funds to prepare for pandemics have been cut by more than 25 percent since fiscal year 2005, the report found.
The Trust, which has repeatedly criticized U.S. preparedness for pandemics, recommended increased spending for public health and more funds to modernize flu vaccine production and for vaccine research and development.
Separately, the Government Accountability Office said the White House Homeland Security Council's pamdemic plan was out of date.
"It is incomplete and they need to update it and fill in some of the gaps," the GAO's Bernice Steinhardt, who wrote the report, said in a telephone interview.
"They need to take advantage of the fact that we actually are going through a pandemic and there obviously are lessons to be learned from the real-life experience."
The National Association of County and City Health Officials says that in the first half of 2009, local health departments cut about 8,000 jobs and cut hours for another 12,000 workers.
It said health reform legislation, currently being debated in Congress, presents an opportunity both to save jobs and protect the public's health.
"Coping with the widespread economic distress by cutting programs and readiness has really left the country vulnerable," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness.
Redlener said the public health system "got a lot of it right, but the system as a whole is struggling" in its response to the H1N1 outbreak.
Public communication about how the pandemic keeps changing needs improvement, Redlener said. And he said problems with the pace of H1N1 vaccine production fed anxiety because it did not meet the public's high expectations.
"The fact of the matter is that we didn't actually meet those expectations and that was very disconcerting. But once it was made available, the vaccine that is, it was rapidly and effectively distributed," he said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says swine flu has infected one in six people in the United States since arriving in April and killed nearly 10,000, including 1,100 children and 7,500 younger adults.
In a typical year, seasonal influenza kills 36,000 Americans and puts 200,000 into the hospital.
The CDC said on Tuesday that 94.6 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine had been made available for distribution so far, up from 73 million doses a week earlier.
© REUTERS 2009