The federal center for Disease Control is strongly considering a program to screen travelers returning to this country from Hong Kong and the Soviet Union for a new strain of flu that has caused epidemics in both those areas.
Dr. Alan Hinman, director of the CDC's immunization division, said he would like to begin a program next week at Dulles airport and five other international airports with direct flights from Russia and the Far East.
Health officials from around the country met here this morning to discuss the virus that swept from Asian to European Russia in a month, infecting an estimated 30-to-35 million persons.
The physicians and researchers were only able to agree on one thing if anything can be predicted about influenza, it is that this country probably will be hit by the Russian strain, if not later this winter, then sometime within the next 12 months.
At the same time, while there was no set policy developed at the three-hour meeting, it was generally agreed that the nation's pharmaceutical firms would begin work on developing a vaccine to combat the new virus.
The new strain, known as A/USSR/H1/N1/77, is similar enough to a variety of flu prevalent in the late 1940s for persons now in their 20s and 30s it gave some natural immunity to it. It is dissimilar enough, however, to make neccessary the development of a new vaccine to combat it.
Initial tests have shown the $43 million stockpile of swine flu vaccine on hand from last year to be useless against the new strain.
There have been no cases of A/USSR reported yet in this country. There have been flu outbreaks in 13 states thus far this winter - but not in the District of Columbia, Maryland or Virginia - but cases reported have been of the A/Victoria or A/Texas varieties, both of which have been seen in this country for the past several years.
Today's session was called by CDC officials to being laying the groundwork for a federal policy on the way in which to combat the new flu strain, which has reportedly affected about one in every seven Russians. Little is known in the U.S. about the severity of the flu.
Participants at the session, including representatives of the federal health establishment, medical schools, drug companies and state health departments, were clearly feeling skittish about taking any action today, following last year's on-again-off-again swine flu immunization program.
The only real consensus to emerge from the season at DC headquarters here was that there is a need to collect data on the new influenza virus.
The Russians have already provided CDC researchers with one 10th of a milliter of each of three types of the Russian virus - about six drops - from which scientists have already produced enough of the virus to supply pharmaceutical companies with what they need to begin the search for a vaccine.
It was estimated today that a vaccine could be produced in 60 to 90 days.
Himan said after the meeting that he wants to begin the airport screening program in an attempt to learn when and how the Russian flu enters this country.
He said that returning travelers will be asked if they have any of the classic symptoms of influenza - fever, chills, headache, dry cough and soreness and aching in the back and limbs - and will take throat cultures from those persons who have the symptoms.
Other travelers returning from the Soviet Union and Far East will be given a card to fill out and mail to CDC or a local health department if they develop the symptoms within five to seven days of returning to the U.S.
This program would serve to alert health officials to the fact that the flu has arrived. It will not, however, help them decide what to do about protecting those who are most threatened by it.
According to Dr. Alan Kendal, chief of the CDC's virology branch, "about one third of those born between 1944 and 1954" have already had contact with strains similar enough to the Russian flu to provide them with immunity to it. That immunity is "virtually absent in the elderly," said Kendal, and in those under age 20.
The elderly, along with infants and those suffering from respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, are those for whom a case of the flu is most serious, and can prove fatal.
Last year's swine flu inoculation program was aimed at those over 25, as well as the usual high-risk population, because when the swine flu struck in 1918 it proved most serious for those in the middle aged, healthy, population.
The swine flu inoculation program was stopped last Dec. 16 after some 40 million doses had been given out. The flu had not materialized beyond its original tiny outbreak at Ft. Dix, N.J., and more than 260 Americans had developed Guillian-Barre syndrome, a form of temporary paralysis, after receiving the flu shot. Twelve died from the paralysis.
One health official at today's conference questioned whether the public would willingly participate in another government sponsored mass inoculation program only a year after the swine flu fiasco.
"Will the rate of (illness and death from the flu) be sufficiently high to accept a rate of one case of Guillain-Barre per 100,000 persons vaccinated, asked Dr. Ronald Altman, of the new Jersey State Department of Health.
"You may be sitting here designing a car for which there may not be a market," said Dr. Norman J. Scherzer, who is attached to the U.S. Public Health Service in New York City. What, he asked rhetorically, will the "attitude of the public and the attitude of Congress be to a new vaccine? If we produce it, and they don't want it, what are we going to do?"
Dr. Edwin Kilbourne, a member of the Public Health Service Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and one of the most ardent supporters and advocated of the swine flu program, said today that "if there's one thing that confounded the program in 1976 it was the absence of the disease."