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The Hill Newspaper - America is not Ready to Respond to a National Health Emergency

Location: Washington, DC

The Hill Newspaper - America is not Ready to Respond to a National Health Emergency

This op-ed originally appeared in THE HILL NEWSPAPER on May 10, 2006.

America is not Ready to Respond to a National Health Emergency

By Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.)

As we wait for the fast-moving bird flu that has struck Asia, Africa, and Europe to find its way to America, the question is: Are we prepared to respond? Or will this outbreak once again show that the Bush administration does not have a comprehensive plan to handle national emergencies, as happened with Hurricane Katrina?

In my view, we're about one-third prepared.

Congress approved $3.8 billion for pandemic flu preparations, and the administration is now building up stockpiles of anti-viral agents that could lessen the flu's impact. The administration also is procuring vaccines that might prevent the flu and is increasing the nation's capacity to produce targeted vaccines when the flu begins to be transmitted between humans.

All of that is to the good. But I firmly believe that two-thirds of what needs to be done still has been left undone.

First, our international response has been inadequate. The best way to prevent a human pandemic flu in the United States is to stop it while it is still overseas.

Four years ago, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and I introduced the Global Pathogen Surveillance Act, to provide more training and equipment to developing countries to build up their ability to detect, identify and report on infectious disease outbreaks. The Senate passed the bill in 2002 and again last year, but it still sits in the House of Representatives.

The administration should be pushing the House to move. Every day it sits, medical training and equipment is not flowing to countries that desperately need it to contain the flu before it gets to America.

We're only hurting ourselves with our continued inaction. If avian flu as a human-to-human disease is detected early enough, anti-viral medicines may be enough to contain the outbreak before it spreads in crowded cities of Asia and Africa. All it takes is a few sick people to hop on airplanes and tens of thousands of people can catch the disease around the world in a matter of weeks.

Also, scientists cannot confidently produce a vaccine until they isolate the strain of the flu that passes from birds to humans. Every day garnered through earlier detection would mean an extra day for vaccine production, in what could be a life-and-death race to protect Americans.

Second, first responders to a pandemic flu outbreak in this country will be state and local health departments, which desperately need more federal support. This should be a national priority, not just an unfunded local mandate.

Beefing up these departments so pandemic flu can be detected early and contained within the community where it first appears would benefit all states, as the flu knows no boundaries.

In this regard, we also need to strengthen our capacity to ramp up care for the millions of citizens who would need medical assistance, including hospitalization, during a flu pandemic.

Third, someone needs to be in charge of the response. In Katrina we learned what happens when the chain of command is not clearly established.

Responding to a pandemic will require coordination among multiple federal agencies and state and local governments. Coordination of this magnitude is not possible unless a single point person, who reports directly to the president, is in charge.

Fourth, avian flu poses a huge economic threat to the poultry industry in Delaware, throughout the country and around the world. The importance of international and domestic veterinary response cannot be understated, and funding for these activities also needs to be strengthened. For example, compensating farmers from developing countries fairly if they report sick poultry is a key link in blocking the spread of avian flu, yet money for this purpose has been very slow in coming.

If avian flu becomes a massive human disease, we need to be more than one-third prepared. We need to be fully ready.

The administration's recently released implementation plan for the national pandemic flu strategy has brought focus to the issue, but it still leaves many key questions unresolved. None of us wants to be sick with this awful disease, wondering: Why didn't the government realize it had to do more?

Biden is the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Judiciary Committee.

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