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Public Statements

Congressional Budget for the United States Government for Fiscal Year 2007

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, on Monday, we heard Secretary Leavitt tell us that the avian flu will arrive in the United States by this fall. And if our worst fears are realized and it becomes a virus that can spread easily from human to human, the avian flu could be here within 30 days.

As Dr. Julie Greenberg, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said, ``This is the most important threat we face right now.'' We are not talking about hundreds or thousands of lives here--we are talking millions. Millions.

The question, then, is not whether we have taken steps to prepare ourselves for the avian flu. Instead, the question is whether we have taken every imaginable and necessary precaution--whether we have done everything we possibly could do--to combat potentially the greatest global health threat in a century.

I don't believe that we have. But I know that we must. The United States cannot afford to have a Katrina-level of preparedness or a Katrina-like response to an international outbreak of avian flu. With so many warnings and so much knowledge of the threat we face, there is no excuse for failure this time around.

The first thing we need to do is increase our supply of Tamiflu and other medications. Countries such as Japan, France, England, and others have now stockpiled enough Tamiflu to cover a quarter of their populations. The United States has enough to cover just 2 percent.

If the avian flu mutates and is able to spread between humans, we will also need a new vaccine to treat the new virus. But as we saw during last year's flu season, our vaccine industry remains fragile and even the supply and distribution of something simple like a flu shot poses a challenge. This has to change.

Of course, as Secretary Leavitt has pointed out, the time it takes to develop a new vaccine means that we could be without any treatment for up to 6 months after the avian flu first breaks out. And that means that if we have an outbreak, it is imperative that our public health infrastructure be prepared to handle the crisis.

First, we need a clear chain of command. We can't be wondering who is in charge of dealing with an outbreak.

Second, we need an aggressive outreach campaign to warn and educate the American public about what to do in the event of an outbreak.

Third, it is still unclear how much assistance the Federal Government is willing to provide already cash-strapped States to strengthen their fragile health infrastructures. Although States such as Illinois are rapidly increasing their efforts to prepare, many States will need substantial assistance to buy antivirals and other supplies. And our hospitals and health professionals still don't have the capacity to care for large numbers of sick Americans.

The devastation wrought by Katrina last year has shown us that we cannot stop the forces of nature. But as the wealthiest country on Earth, we can prepare, and we can respond in a way that saves as many lives as possible.

We must do that now with the avian flu. The Conrad avian flu amendment will provide the necessary funds for Federal agencies, working with the States, to prepare for potential pandemic. I am pleased to be a cosponsor of the amendment, and I encourage my colleagues to vote in favor of it.


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