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Avian Flu: We Must Act Now

Location: Washington, DC

AVIAN FLU: WE MUST ACT NOW -- (House of Representatives - October 07, 2005)

The SPEAKER pro tempore. Under a previous order of the House, the gentleman from California (Mr. Schiff) is recognized for 5 minutes.

Mr. SCHIFF. Madam Speaker, in the midst of a press conference this past Tuesday, President Bush responded to a question relating to a possible outbreak of avian flu here in the United States by stating that he was considering the use of the American military to enforce quarantine measures in cases of a pandemic.

While a number of public health experts and civil liberties advocates quickly criticized the President for suggesting that the military be deployed to control a flu outbreak, his public musing about the need for such a drastic step was a strong and long overdue indication that the U.S. Government is beginning to take seriously the prospect of a flu pandemic.

For several years now, epidemiologists and public health officials have been warning of a possible global pandemic of bird flu that could rival or surpass the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed as many as 50 million people worldwide. We have been fortunate that none of the existing strains of avian flu that have infected thousands of birds and some 65 people in 11 countries have mutated into a form that can spread from human to human; but that threat is real, and there is growing evidence that we do not have much time to prepare.

This week's issues of the journals Nature and Science have published the results of work done at the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology here in Maryland that shows that the 1918 Spanish flu was actually a type of bird flu and was similar to the flu now affecting Asia. The research also suggests that samples of today's avian flu have begun to develop genetic changes that may allow it to spread from person to person.

Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center For Disease Preparedness at Columbia University, recently told The New York Times that a flu epidemic was the ``next big catastrophe that we can reasonably expect, and the country is phenomenally not prepared for this.''

Yesterday, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt acknowledged our lack of preparation, but seemingly tried to absolve the administration by saying that ``no one in the world is ready'' for a flu pandemic.

That may be true, but some countries have taken greater steps to prepare than the United States. At present we have only 2 million doses of Tamiflu, an antiviral medication that has been shown to be effective against the H5NI flu virus. The Australian Government, on the other hand, has stockpiled 3.5 million courses of treatment, white Britain has ordered enough of the drug to cover a quarter of its population.

Clearly, we are lagging behind other developed countries in preparing for an outbreak here. And as ABC's ``Primetime'' reported last month, the Roche Company, which produces Tamiflu, is filling orders on a first-come, first-served basis. The United States, I am sorry to say, is nowhere near the top of the list.

Quote: ``Do we wish we had ordered it sooner and more of it? I suspect one would say yes,'' admitted Secretary Leavitt. When asked why the U.S. did not place orders for Tamiflu sooner, the Secretary told ABC: ``I can't answer that. I don't know the answer to that.''

The American Government has finally begun to take action to prepare to confront a pandemic. The Department of State is hosting a meeting of health officials from 80 countries today to map out a strategy for minimizing the deaths and destruction that an outbreak might wreak. At the same time, White House officials will meet today with representatives of the U.S. pharmaceutical industry to encourage them to get involved in the manufacture of a flu vaccine.

But, Madam Speaker, Congress needs to do more. My colleague, the gentlewoman from New York (Mrs. Lowey), has been a leader in trying to push the Congress and the administration to do more to prepare. In late July, Mrs. Lowey introduced H.R. 3369, the Attacking Viral Influenza Across Nations Act, the AVIAN Act, which provides for a comprehensive national effort to prepare for a flu outbreak. The AVIAN Act requires the Federal Government to create plans for and respond to a pandemic outbreak. It orders the procurement of antiviral treatments and vaccines for a Strategic National Stockpile.

The bill also promotes increased research in the pandemic flu, its vaccines and treatments, and expands efforts to prevent pandemic avian flu both domestically and internationally. I am a proud cosponsor of the AVIAN Act, and I strongly urge my colleagues to join us.

I was heartened to see last week that the Senate voted to add $4 billion to the U.S. fight against deadly avian flu by stocking up on antiviral drugs and increasing global surveillance of the disease. The gentlewoman from New York (Mrs. Lowey) and I are circulating a letter to ask House conferees to support the Senate request, and I hope our colleagues will join in that effort.

Madam Speaker, I have spoken many times in this Chamber about the danger we face from nuclear terrorism, which I believe is a primary threat to our way of life. The only other threat that remotely approaches a nuclear attack is that posed by a global flu pandemic, one which could kill tens of millions of people. We failed to prepare for 9/11. We failed to prepare adequately for Hurricane Katrina. We must not fail to prepare for a flu pandemic.

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