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Homeland Security

08 November 2005

U.S. Congress Studies Details of Flu Plan

Health secretary appears on Capitol Hill to discuss preparedness

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – Top U.S. health officials have made several trips to the U.S. Capitol in recent days, attempting to answer reams of questions from members of Congress about the national plan for influenza pandemic preparedness unveiled by the Bush administration November 2. 

Lawmakers are inquiring about the details of the plan issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, but it appears many clearly are focused on the big picture – pandemic influenza is an imminent threat.

“This is serious business, even deadly business,” said Representative Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, as he convened a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee November 8.

The Bush administration has been working for weeks to educate lawmakers and the public about the pandemic threat, and the possibility that widespread outbreaks of avian influenza in Asia could mutate into an influenza strain easily spread among humans.  Those are the conditions that could lead to rapidly spreading, contagious disease around the world as influenza pandemics have done three times over the last century.

The administration has worked to put this issue on the public agenda, but Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt also is trying to avoid inflaming the public discussion.

“Our rhetoric needs to inspire preparation and not panic,” Leavitt said.

What the national pandemic plan says about the responsibilities of states and local governments, and the costs to those entities is a significant concern for lawmakers who must return to their home districts and answer those questions from constituents.

Members of Congress from Michigan, Massachusetts, Colorado, Tennessee and other states said their state governments will be unable to make the investments in flu preparedness that the federal plan says they should.  Failure to recognize that could undermine preparedness overall, lawmakers said.

“Rather than making sure we have plans everywhere, we have to make sure the plans are going to work,” said Representative Diana Degette, a Democrat from Colorado.

The more than $7 billion plan outlined by President Bush November 1 earmarks about $1 billion for building a stockpile of anti-viral drugs, notably the medicine oseltamivir phosphate – also known by the brand name Tamiflu – which has been effective in helping some of the more than 120 people who have contracted the viral strain now primarily circulating among birds in Asia. (See related article.)

“We need to make sure we don’t fall into the trap of saying that stockpiles of Tamiflu equals preparedness,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), also testifying at the November 8 hearing.  “From a scientific standpoint, that is not the case.”

Testifying at Leavitt’s side, Fauci said that if pandemic breaks out, it will be caused by a virus different from H5N1.  The effectiveness of Tamiflu against this still unknown viral strain currently cannot be known. 

The same is true for vaccines. NIAID has a vaccine candidate under study that has offered protection against H5N1, but whether it will protect against a viral strain that evolves from H5N1 will not be known until the new virus appears.

What is known, Leavitt said, is that international surveillance is the “first line of defense” and the best hope for preventing pandemic.  Working with other international partners, the United States is hoping that the emergence of a viral strain capable of moving from human to human with ease will be spotted early, and contained, averting widespread human disease.

Leavitt is likely to spend more time answering questions from Congress about the pandemic plan, and he acknowledges that lawmakers raise good points that still must be address. Influenza preparedness, he says, is a work in progress.

“We’re better prepared today than we were yesterday,” Leavitt said. “We’ll be better prepared tomorrow than we are today.”

A delegation from the United States has been in Geneva November 7-9 working with partner nations and the international human and animal health organizations to draw up specific plans on surveillance of both animal and human disease. (See related article.)

For more information on U.S. and international efforts to combat avian influenza, see Bird Flu.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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