Health official disputes pandemic plan for elderly

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In the event of a pandemic influenza outbreak, who should be the first to get precious supplies of antiviral drugs and vaccine? One of the federal government's top health officials is challenging a government plan and says it should not be the elderly and other at-risk populations.

Ezekiel Emanuel, head of the bioethics department at the National Institutes of Health, said he believes it is more appropriate to give young adults priority because they are at higher risk of dying in a flu pandemic and still have many productive years left to live.

Nevertheless, federal officials have said they intend to give vaccine first to healthcare workers, followed by the oldest, sickest patients, in an effort to save the most lives.

Federal advisory panels that convened to develop a policy unanimously recommended ranking the elderly ahead of other sick or healthy individuals because they believe senior citizens "are at high risk of hospitalization and death." But, Emanuel argues that in the 1918 pandemic "the people who died were young, healthy 20-year-olds."

The article was published in the journal Science.