United States Unprepared for Bird Flu Pandemic, Democrats Warn

WASHINGTON, DC, October 6, 2005 (ENS) - A group of Senate Democrats introduced legislation Wednesday to help America prepare for and protect against a possible avian flu pandemic. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid joined together with Senator Barack Obama, Senator Evan Bayh, Senator Edward Kennedy, Senator Tom Harkin, and Senator Dick Durbin in introducing the “Pandemic Preparedness and Response Act” to provide a comprehensive approach to prepare and protect Americans from this potentially devastating virus.

Reid

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada is the Senate Minority Leader. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
The senators stressed the importance of preparedness and protection because they know that America can do better than what the Bush administration has done to date.

“I am greatly concerned about the threat that avian flu poses for the American people and the world and am committed to doing everything we can now to prevent an outbreak and minimize its consequences should one occur,” said Senator Reid of Nevada.

“It is time to finally learn the lessons of September 11th and Hurricane Katrina and do everything we can before a national tragedy strikes in order to protect Americans," said Reid. "Waiting any longer would itself be a national tragedy.”

"Clearly, we're not where we should be as a nation in preparing for a flu pandemic," said Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts, "just as we weren't adequately prepared for Katrina. The administration has failed to stockpile needed flu medicines, delayed the publication of a comprehensive response plan, and irresponsibly cut funding for public health preparedness and hospital surge capacity."

“This is one of the biggest threats we face today,” said Senator Harkin of Iowa. “A flu pandemic is not a matter of if - but when. We must heed these warning signs, and take the time to invest in our public infrastructure. Instead of always looking into the rear-view mirror, we must do all we can to prevent a disaster, like avian flu, before it happens.”

Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin represents a largely agricultural state. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
The bird flu virus of concern is known as H5N1. Since the start of the latest outbreak in birds in late 2003, more than 150 million birds have died of the disease or have been culled to prevent its spread. To date the H5N1 virus has only been passed from birds to humans, with a handful of exceptions.

But experts are now predicting that it is only a matter of time before the virus mutates and can be easily spread between humans, creating a widespread public health crisis. A World Health Organization spokesman said Friday that a global bird flu pandemic could kill as many as 7.5 million people.

The new United Nations coordinator for response to the avian flu, Dr. David Nabarro, put the upper limit of the global death toll as high as 150 million people.

“We need to act, because the administration has failed to prepare adequately for pandemic flu," said Senator Kennedy. "The danger of a major hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast was ignored until it was too late. We must not make the same mistake with pandemic flu. Other nations have taken effective steps to prepare, and America cannot afford to continue to lag behind.”

In a matter of weeks, an outbreak in China, Vietnam or Cambodia could spread rapidly and trigger a world-wide outbreak facilitated by international travel and globalization.

Obama

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois is concerned about a bird flu pandemic. (Photo courtesy Officie of the Senator)
“We must face the reality that in this age when you can get on a plane in Bangkok and arrive in Chicago just hours later, this is not a problem isolated half a world away but one that could impact us right here at home,” said Senator Obama. “It is imperative that we act quickly and take the necessary steps to close the preparedness gap we face in dealing with what could be a deadly and devastating flu pandemic.”

“The issue of avian flu is one of the critically important issues of our time,” Senator Bayh said. “Leading experts say it is only a matter of time before this deadly disease becomes more efficient in moving from person to person. We should not await that dreadful day, but work proactively to protect the national security interests and the health interests of the American people.”

“More than 115 cases of the Avian Flu have been reported around the world. Where humans were affected by it, over half of them have died. There isn't anything we can do about the current situation, but there is something we can do about the threat to America. What we can do is step up to this challenge, purchase the antiviral drugs we need now, invest in domestic capabilities for vaccine protection for America, and prepare for emergency care during a flu pandemic,” said Senator Durbin.

The Pandemic Preparedness and Response Act will enable the United States to take move forward in protecting Americans from an Avian flu pandemic. The bill will prepare for a pandemic by finalizing, implementing and funding pandemic preparedness and response plans.

If passed into law, the bill will improve surveillance and international partnerships to monitor the spread of avian flu and detect the emergence of a flu strain with pandemic potential immediately.

Kennedy

Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
“We need to act, because the administration has failed to prepare adequately for pandemic flu," said Senator Kennedy. "The danger of a major hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast was ignored until it was too late. We must not make the same mistake with pandemic flu. Other nations have taken effective steps to prepare, and America cannot afford to continue to lag behind.”

The legislation would mandate the development, production and distribution of an effective vaccine. But the vaccine cannot be made until the human form of the disease has actually mutated and can be isolated as vaccine is made from the live virus.

The bill mandates that federal government plan ahead for a pandemic by stockpiling antivirals, vaccines and other essential medications and supplies.

The bill would allow strengthening of the public health infrastructure and would inform Americans by increasing awareness and education about pandemic flu.

The legislation mandates devoting adequate financial resources to pandemic preparedness.