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Public Statements

Avian Influenza

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


AVIAN INFLUENZA -- (Senate - October 18, 2005)

Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, we are continuing to witness, as I think you are aware, the relentless spread of avian flu carried slowly, but predictably, by wild migratory birds from countries in Southeast Asia to western China to Mongolia and then over the Ural Mountains into Russia and Ukraine. From there, avian flu this week has spread over to Romania and Turkey, and we have just learned possibly into Greece.

Dr. Joseph Domenech, chief of the Animal Health Service at the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, has been quoted as saying that `` ..... we are not surprised.''

At this point, no one should be surprised. The experts have told us repeatedly that a flu pandemic is inevitable, although the timing is unpredictable. In other words, the question is not if but when. The spread of avian flu is our warning signal, and we need to heed this call to action.

If we are lucky, we will have at least a year or perhaps several years to prepare for a flu pandemic, but we might not be so lucky. Regardless of whether it is this particular strain of avian flu, H5N1, or another deadly strain, the time to act is long overdue if we want to prevent human suffering, death, and economic devastation.

International health experts say that two of the three conditions for an avian flu pandemic in Southeast Asia already exist. First, a new strain of the virus has emerged to which humans have little or no immunity. Second, this strain has shown that it can jump between species.

The last condition, the ability for the virus to travel efficiently from human to human, has not been met, and it is the only thing preventing a full-blown pandemic. Once this virus mutates and can be transmitted from human to human, we will not be able to contain this disease. Because of the wonders of modern travel, a person could board a plane in Bangkok, Athens or Bucharest and land in Chicago less than a day later, unknowingly carrying the virus. In fact, we learned this lesson from SARS, which moved quickly from Asia to Canada, where it led to many deaths.

As my colleagues know, one of my top priorities since arriving in the Senate has been to increase awareness about the avian flu. In April of this year, I introduced the Avian Act, which is a comprehensive bill to increase our preparedness for an avian flu pandemic. This bill was incorporated into a larger bill, the Pandemic Preparedness and Response Act that Senator Reid and I introduced 2 weeks ago. We need to move this bill as quickly as possible.

We also need to provide more funding to purchase vaccines and antivirals and improve our ability to spot and isolate a pandemic as soon as it begins. In the spring and summer, I worked to secure $25 million in funding to fight the avian flu. Today, some of this money is already helping the World Health Organization to step up its international surveillance and response efforts.

But obviously more money is needed--much more. Last month, I joined Senator Harkin and others in offering an amendment to the DOD appropriations bill to provide almost $4 billion to fight the avian flu. I am pleased that Senator Stevens cosponsored the amendment and it was accepted into the appropriations bill. At this point, I am hoping that the House will agree to this funding in conference.

Although we have begun to step up to the plate in the Senate, it is unfortunate that none of the avian flu bills that have been introduced have yet been passed into law. There has been too much talk, not enough action. And this is not just true in the Congress.

One year after publishing the draft pandemic flu plan, the administration still has not released the final HHS pandemic flu preparedness plan. Half the States have not published plans either, and we know that many of these States will need substantial help.

This lack of planning is compounded by the fact that we still don't have an FDA-approved vaccine against avian flu, and the one drug that many countries are relying on, Tamiflu, may be less effective than experts had thought. The manufacturer is also struggling to meet the demand, and it could take up to 2 years for it to make enough for the U.S. stockpile, presuming this administration finally puts in an order for the drug.

I ask my colleagues how many hearings and briefings have they sat through where witnesses and experts have urged the Government to be better prepared for these types of crises?

The failure to prepare for emergencies can have devastating consequences. We learned that lesson the hard way after Katrina. This Nation must not be caught off guard when faced with the prospects of a pandemic because the consequences are simply too high.

The flyways for migratory birds are well established. We know that avian flu will likely hit the United States in a matter of time. With the regular flu season coming up shortly, conditions will be favorable for the reassortment of the avian flu virus with the annual flu virus.

Such reassortment could lead to a mutated virus that

could be transmitted efficiently between humans, which is the last condition needed for pandemic flu.

The question is, Will we be ready when that happens? Let's make sure the answer is yes. I urge my colleagues in the Senate and the House to push this administration to take the immediate action needed to prevent catastrophe, the likes of which we have not seen during our lifetimes.

I thank the Chair, and I yield the floor.

http://thomas.loc.gov/

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