Bird Flu Pandemic Expected

by  Editor-in-Chief

Congressional leaders are currently rushing to prepare for the “looming danger” of a bird flu pandemic, according to U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), and others who spoke at the federal Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee hearings on Influenza Preparedness, on January 31, 2006, in Washington , D.C.

A Rush to Prepare
“The public needs to be informed about what is coming and educated about what actions are expected of it” declared Dr. Joanne Godley, a bioethicist and acting health commissioner, Philadelphia Department of Social Services.

“Scientists, doctors and public health people tell us that it’s not a matter of if but when [the bird flu] will move into a pandemic stage,” declared Harkin during the televised hearings on C-Span 2.

“We’ve had a couple of major disasters in the U.S. in the last few years, and what we’ve found out is that we’re just totally unprepared. We’ve been warned about the Avian Flu influenza, and we know what the dimensions of it could be. And this time, we’ve got to be prepared. And time is running out,” Harkin proclaimed.

Harkin also said that Congress only approved half of the requested $8 billion for the expected pandemic, and less than the $7 billion, $1 million President George W. Bush requested.

According to Sen. Arlen Spector (R-PA), President Bush alerted the country of the “very serious health problem,” and asked Congress for the emergency allocations in November 2005 at the National Institute of Health.

The money is to be used for state and local capacity, stockpiling vaccines and anti-virals, increasing global surveillance activities, and to expand the domestic production of flu vaccine. $350 million dollars of the funds are appropriated for state and local response capacity to a pandemic Harkin said. Based on his historical perspective, Robert Barry, the author of “The Great Influenza of 1918,” when a pandemic was estimated to have killed some 50 million people across the country, said that millions of people could also be afflicted in the soon-coming health epidemic.

At the hearing, chief officers from pharmaceutical companies testified about how they would help during the potential influenza pandemic.

The bird flu is currently circulating in countries in Asia in Turkey and recently one case in Iraq, Specter said.

Harkin said he recently introduced Senate Bill 2112, “which would provide a free flu shot to everyone in the United States” and would create demand for flu vaccines, stimulate the production facilities, dramatically lower the costs of flue shots, and stimulate public health agencies to build sustainable delivery systems. The bill could also result in “major protection from the more virulent strains or might build up some immunity that would help protect people in case of a pandemic.”

Another concern of Godley was about Philadelphia not having a federal quarantine office within the city, which she stated would be a major problem in a flu pandemic.

“It is at JFK airport, so that the cross jurisdictional issues would be a factor in Philadelphia,” she said.

Godly said that other countries were more prepared and better equipped to help America in a disastrous event than the U.S.

She said “Within hours after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and the tragic flooding ensued, the tiny island of Cuba mobilized more than a thousand medical care practitioners” to assist the deadly storm’s victims.

“There were nurses and doctors who were trained in medical relief operations and who were literally placed on call to travel to the U.S., even with supplies. The country who’s GNP (Gross National Product) is a mere fraction of ours can respond to an emergency in that fashion. Why can’t we?” she declared.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he didn’t think the federal government can finance the cost alone and suggested that states take on some of the costs.

But Harkin questioned that notion.

“What happens to the states like Louisiana, Mississippi that were hit by Katrina? They don’t have the money. I think there needs to be a national stockpile of the flu shots. What do we do when states like Louisiana just don’t have the money? I really don’t know,” he proclaimed.

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