Bird Flu Alarm

2006-05-03-Bush Pandemic Plan Puts State, Local Health Officials in Charge

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-05-03-Bush Pandemic Plan Puts State, Local Health Officials in Charge

State and local health officials will be responsible for coordinating the fight against a global outbreak of lethal influenza, according to President George W. Bush's latest blueprint for handling a pandemic.

State governments can't expect much federal aid if a lethal bird flu such as the H5N1 virus mutates into a form that begins spreading quickly among people, according to the plan released by the White House today.

While the federal government is creating a road map to reduce the risk of a pandemic and its transmission, ``the center of gravity of the pandemic response, however, will be in communities,'' the report said.

The document elaborates on a preliminary $7.1 billion plan released in November for speeding production of flu vaccines, stockpiling medicines, strengthening surveillance and helping states prepare for a pandemic. A lethal flu outbreak in the U.S. may cause between 200,000 and 2 million deaths and disrupt everything from the movement of goods and services to the operations of schools and universities, the report said.

Congress has approved $3.8 billion of the administration's request, with additional money pending in a catch-all spending bill now in the Senate.

Insufficient federal oversight would set the stage for another Katrina-like disaster, said U.S. Representative Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat.

``There are still people in the Gulf Coast today who are waiting for relief,'' Emanuel said today in an e-mailed statement. ``Pandemic flu brought to you by the same folks who brought you Hurricane Katrina.''

H5N1 Virus Deaths

H5N1, a flu that mainly affects birds, has spread from Asia to Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The virus has killed at least 113 of 205 people known to have been infected since late 2003, the World Health Organization said on April 27.

The virus is one of at least four that may mutate into a form that could spread quickly among people, Robert Webster, a flu expert at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, said today. Strains called H2, H9 and H7 also may change into forms that can be passed easily from human to human, he said at a conference in Singapore.

American businesses from stockbrokers and insurance agents to steelmakers and autoworkers should ``assume that up to 40 percent of their staff may be absent for periods of about two weeks at the height of the pandemic wave,'' according to the report prepared by the Homeland Security Council.

The report aims to alert the private sector, which accounts for 85 percent of all entities in the U.S., such as banks, hospitals and food production to manufacturing.

Potential Damage

``While the pandemic will not damage power lines, banks or computer networks, it has the potential ultimately to threaten all critical infrastructure'' as people get sick and leave the workplace ``for weeks or months.''

In the event of an outbreak, employers should substitute teleconferences for face-to-face meetings and adopt liberal leave policies for workers with sick family members to reduce the risk of disease transmission. Authorities also urged that people at work maintain a distance of three feet (0.9 meters) to reduce the risk of getting sick.

Many state health and disaster officials are still adjusting to the burden or responsibility from a pandemic. When Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt brought that message to Tennessee, ``there were many people who seemed to be getting the word for the first time,'' said William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University influenza specialist who consults to the government on immunization issues.

Health Workers

``People from hospital associations and businesses were saying `We have to get on with it,' '' Schaffner said in a telephone interview today. ``Even people from health departments were spurred to greater activity.''

While New York State disaster officials haven't finished their plan for pandemic flu, they are expecting significant involvement from their federal counterparts, said Dennis Michalski, a spokesman for the agency in Albany.

``If there is a pandemic, we have to assume the feds are going to be here,'' he said in a telephone interview. ``This would be a national event of special significance; we're going to be looking for support.''

Unlike a hurricane, a pandemic might require state and local health officials to administer responses on their own, said Vanderbilt's Schaffner. While hurricanes and tornados strike in one place, a pandemic can hit great portions of the country simultaneously.

``As powerful as the federal government is, it cannot be the cavalry that comes over the hill to every community,'' he said. ``What we need are local initiatives and coping mechanisms to minimize the damage and quickly as possible restore function.''

Vaccine, Drug Stockpiles

The Bush Administration still plans to have enough bird-flu vaccine stockpiled for 20 million people, according to the report released today. Supplies of antiviral drugs would be sufficient to treat 75 million people with the goal of reducing the severity of the disease and limiting the spread.

The government now has 40 million doses of flu vaccine for use in poultry if an outbreak occurs, the report said, and there are plans to expand the number to 110 million doses to protect the $29 billion U.S. industry.

Understanding Avian Influenza