Preparing for bird flu

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. In Washington, the Senate continues to debate an economic stimulus package worth around $900 billion dollars. Among the provisions is almost $900 million for ?pandemic flu preparedness.? Senators may have a tough time making a case for pandemic planning when there are seemingly more pressing issues to address. But public health officials warn that another pandemic is coming, and the United States isn't as ready as it needs to be. The World's Katy Clark reports.

KATY CLARK: Remember bird flu? ?Once confined to flocks in Asia, bird flu is now clearly a European problem.? ?The world is a biologically dangerous place right now.? ?We've gotten three laboratory confirmed tests that humans have contract avian influenza.? A few years ago, everyone was worried that the H5N1 bird flu virus was going to sweep across the globe much like the Spanish flu did in 1918 and 1919. The Spanish flu pandemic killed as many as 40 million people. Bird flu peaked in 2006 with 79 human deaths. Today, you don't hear much about bird flu, and you might think the danger has past. Not so, says William Raub. Raub was science advisor to President Bush's Health and Human Services Secretary, Mike Leavitt.

WILLIAM RAUB: The bird flu is out there and continuing to work its way in the world even though much of media interest has died down. So the threat remains; it's ever present.

CLARK: In fact, five people died from bird flu in China this past month. Three years ago, when bird flu was more in the news, the Bush administration called for a National pandemic plan, and the President requested more than $7 billion dollars from Congress. William Raub says a big chunk of that money has gone toward revamping the way the US produces flu vaccines.

RAUB: As little as 3 years ago we had only two domestic manufacturers of influenza vaccine. That domestic capacity would have been woefully short of the surge in production that would be needed by an influenza pandemic.

CLARK: Raub says today there are six companies in the US working on mass-producing flu vaccine. Health officials say they've already stockpiled enough vaccine to protect more than 12 million people in the early stages of a bird flu outbreak. That would cover many healthcare workers, first responders, and other critical personnel. The federal government and state governments have also stockpiled antiviral drugs to cover almost 70 million people. Additional federal money has gone toward buying ventilators, syringes, and rapid diagnostic tests, and to beefing up state and local preparedness plans. David Nabarro is the United Nations Coordinator for Avian and Pandemic Influenza. He gives the US high marks.

DAVID NABARRO: If we compare things now with how they were in 2005, there really has been a real difference, particularly in different parts of government throughout this country in getting ready for the next pandemic.

CLARK: Still, a recent federal assessment found gaps in the way the US would respond in the next pandemic. The gaps range from how states would handle mass casualties to who determines when to close schools, and for how long. And there are much broader concerns about how a pandemic will affect the overall functioning of the economy. Mike Osterholm runs The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He's studied how a pandemic would play out in today's world of ?globally-connected commerce? and it doesn't look good.

MIKE OSTERHOLM: We just make the assumption the lights will be on, the water will be there, the drugs will be there, all the medical equipment we need will be there, when in fact, in today's global ?just in time? economy, where things arrive literally just hours before needed, that's not going to happen in the next pandemic.

CLARK: In a pandemic, ports may shut down; trains may not run; all sorts of workers may not show up at their jobs. Osterholm says the government needs to work more closely with the private sector to ensure critical supplies will be available in a pandemic. But he acknowledges getting companies to pay attention to pandemic preparedness is a hard sell in this difficult economy, and he worries that after some initial progress, the US is back to where it was in 2005.

OSTERHOLM: There've been a lot of issues that have made pandemic preparedness tough. It's made it one people want to avoid. But in the end, we know that with the next pandemic, everything that we've done to or not to prepare will be evident.

CLARK: President Obama seems to believe it should be a priority. He backed the stimulus package that passed last week in the House. That bill included $900 million dollars to help protect the country from pandemic flu and other natural and man-made biological threats. A similar provision is in the stimulus package now under debate in the Senate, but it's facing opposition. Republican Senator Susan Collins, of Maine, wants the money for bird flu removed from the bill. Both parties will continue fighting for their wish-list items. Democratic leaders have pledged to have the bill ready for the President's signature by the end of next week. For The World, this is Katy Clark.