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Defending Against an Influenza Pandemic

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Defending Against an Influenza Pandemic
By: Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ-11)

August 26, 2005

At first glance H5N1 sounds more like a secret password than a deadly flu virus. Yet, this single viral strain is receiving serious study and attention by leading health officials at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and other leading health organizations across the globe. They fear that if successfully transmitted from animals to humans this flu virus could cause an influenza pandemic, killing millions of people around the world.

H5N1, a strain of avian flu, or bird flu as it is commonly called, has swept across Southeast Asia, north into Russia and Kazakhstan, and is now heading west toward Europe. Since early 2004, it has infected more than 100 people worldwide, killing at least 61 people in Southeast Asia. The deadly strain has turned up in thousands of chicken farms in Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, China and Thailand, and in migratory birds and mammals, and, just recently in Russia and Kazakhstan.

This deadly virus strain has not yet mutated into a form that can be easily spread from human-to-human. Yet, with more news accounts of avian flu spreading around the globe, health experts are fearing and preparing for the worst. Dr. Julie Gerberding, the Director of Centers Disease Control, based in Atlanta, calls an avian flu outbreak among humans, "the most important threat we are facing right now." Dr. Klaus Stohr, a disease expert at the World Health Organization put it this way: "Avian influenza in Asia poses a very significant public health threat. If the airborne virus were to undergo a genetic change making its transmission from person-to-person more efficient, the impact could be global in the jet age. That virus would travel around the world in less than six to eight months."

With a new flu season approaching, health experts are concerned that avian flu could merge with a common influenza strain. Such a situation could cause the strain to easily spread among humans, causing a flu pandemic and killing thousands of people in the U.S. and millions worldwide. Given the serious concern about a shortage of flu vaccine last year and the ease with which an influenza pandemic could cross national borders, the World Health Organization has called for all governments to take action.

The U.S. Congress has swiftly responded. Earlier this summer, I worked with my colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee to pass legislation through the full House that included $120 million to continue development of an effective vaccine against avian flu and $530 million to increase our national stockpile of antiviral medicines in the event a pandemic does break out. Further, the President signed into a law an emergency supplemental appropriations bill that included $58 million for the CDC to produce additional influenza countermeasures to treat Americans exposed to avian flu.

Currently, the Strategic National Stockpile, which is supposed to contain significant quantities of antiviral supplies to treat a large number Americans in the event of a pandemic, has enough for only six percent of our population, according to the CDC. If an avian flu pandemic broke out today, hundreds of millions of Americans would be susceptible to infection, and possibly death.

Producing antiviral medication is just one part of the solution. More must still be done. Earlier this year, I wrote U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt strongly urging him to fully implement his department s "Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response Plan" to coordinate a national strategy to prepare for and respond to an influenza pandemic. Consequently, the Bush Administration will shortly be issuing its final "Pandemic Preparedness Plan" which will serve as a roadmap for federal, state, local health officials, as well as our private sector health partners, to ensure the highest level of preparedness, both here at home and in response to international outbreaks of avian flu. I anxiously await the report and will be actively working in Congress to speed its implementation, including approval of the necessary resources to do so.

Issued in draft form last year, the goals of the Administration s pandemic plan include:

-Ensuring optimal coordination, decision-making, and communication between federal, state, and municipal health officials;
-Rapidly develop, evaluate, and license vaccines against the pandemic strain and produce them in sufficient quantity to protect Americans;
-Implementing a vaccination program that rapidly administers vaccine to priority groups and monitors vaccine effectiveness and safety;
-Implementing measures to decrease the spread of disease;
-Providing optimal medical care and maintain essential community services ; and
-Communicating effectively with the public, health care providers, community leaders and the media.

Avian flu may be occurring halfway around the globe, however, we cannot forget the lessons of 1918. That was the year that the Spanish flu pandemic spread throughout the world. By conservative estimates, that deadly virus killed more half a million Americans and more than 20 million worldwide. Whether or not avian flu is the world's next pandemic, we must heed the warnings of health experts and take action to prevent the health crisis that is happening in Asia from migrating here to America.

To learn more about avian flu, visit

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