The Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to buy half a million dollars' worth of the antiviral drug Tamiflu to distribute to county rescue workers in the event of a human outbreak of bird flu, joining Los Angeles and a handful of other California counties stockpiling the drug.
"I think it's encouraging that some of the counties are stepping up. To me, it's an investment in emergency preparedness," said Dr. Howard Backer, chief of immunization and chief medical consultant for emergency preparedness for the California Department of Health Services.
The county's purchase of about 7,500 courses of Tamiflu will primarily be given to healthcare workers and first responders. The general population would receive drugs the county expects to receive from state and federal agencies.
In December, Los Angeles County bought "tens of thousands" of Tamiflu doses, according to Dr. John Talarico, acting director for bioterrorism within the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services' public health branch. He said the county was determining whether it should buy more.
Neither Orange nor San Bernardino counties have bought supplies, though Orange County health officials said a decision to buy could go before the Board of Supervisors as early as July.
Local health officials are stockpiling Tamiflu because of concern that state and federal resources wouldn't reach local areas fast enough in the event of a pandemic.
"We don't imagine that we'll get it [Tamiflu] from the state quickly enough to deal with the earliest stages," said Dr. Gary Feldman, public health officer for Riverside County. "We're going to have to be self-sufficient for some time.... 'Don't expect help quickly' -- you're hearing that over and over again."
Tamiflu and Relenza are the two FDA-approved antiviral drugs being stockpiled by the federal government for treatment in case people are infected or are exposed to bird flu.
Bird flu is caused by an influenza virus that occurs in wild birds but that can also sicken or kill domesticated birds. Most cases of bird flu infections in humans have been caused by contact with infected poultry or surfaces contaminated by infected birds.
Transmission of avian influenza viruses from one person to another is very rare, and transmission has not been observed to continue beyond one person, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a $400-million plan for pandemic flu and disaster preparedness, including $53 million for nearly 3.7 million doses of antiviral drugs. The governor's proposal is pending review by the Legislature.
And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is stockpiling about 50 million treatment courses of Tamiflu and Relenza, which will be stored in 12 locations throughout the country, said agency spokesman Bill Hall.
The department is setting aside 6 million doses of Tamiflu that will be used in an effort to contain a first outbreak of a potential flu pandemic.
Even so, Hall said, local jurisdictions must plan on their own.
Orange County is in the process of determining how much of the antiviral drug it should buy if supervisors approve the plan, said Donna Fleming, division manager for disease control and epidemiology at the Orange County Health Care Agency.
County officials said the first purchase would probably be about 3,000 doses, needed for healthcare workers and rescue personnel.
The Tamiflu would be placed in hospitals throughout the county.