U.S. Government Tackles Bird-Flu Preparedness

Washington is abuzz with efforts to avoid an avian flu pandemic: President Bush is meeting vaccine industry officials and the State Department is convening 65 countries to discuss international prevention efforts. But lawmakers from both parties say preparations are not happening fast enough.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Avian flu is making official Washington feverish this week. Not the flu itself, but concerns that a potential human pandemic could make the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina seem minor. This morning, President Bush is meeting with officials of the vaccine industry. Across town, the State Department is hosting a meeting of representatives from more than 65 countries to discuss international efforts to detect and contain the potential spread of bird flu to humans. And on Capitol Hill, lawmakers from both parties say preparations are not happening fast enough. NPR's Julie Rovner has more.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

So far, only a little more than a hundred cases of bird flu have been documented in humans. All of them are in Asia, but you wouldn't know that from the sudden and seemingly overwhelming interest in Washington in preparing for a possible pandemic. Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama attributes the surge to another natural disaster: Hurricane Katrina.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): There is a situation where you had a very high probability of a disaster of catastrophic proportions. I think we sort of ignored it, and the catastrophe happened. Here is a similar situation where we don't know exactly when a pandemic's going to hit, but we do know it will hit.

ROVNER: And a flu pandemic is not just a health concern, says Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas.

Senator PAT ROBERTS (Republican, Kansas): But if you look at the magnitude or the top level of worry, you could lose a third of our population and create economic havoc for years to come.

ROVNER: Concerns like those which may be overblown, according to most health officials, have nonetheless touched off a flurry of activity. Earlier this week, President Bush discussed the possibility of using the military to enforce flu-related quarantines, and Congress is acting even before the administration unveils its own flu preparedness plan. Last week, the Senate voted to add nearly $4 billion to a spending bill for the Defense Department, primarily to purchase and stockpile antiviral medications. Democrats, however, led by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, say they're worried that the administration has yet to back the new spending.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): We have $3.9 billion in this bill. Every penny of it is needed to protect the American people. And I think it would be a travesty if the administration didn't work with Republican leadership in the House and Senate to save that money.

ROVNER: Still, most of the flu-related activity on Capitol Hill is bipartisan. Yesterday, Republican Roberts introduced a flu bill with Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. Their bill focuses less on the bird flu risk to humans and more on encouraging companies to take up vaccine manufacturing in general. In the US, it's mostly been abandoned because of low profits and concerns about lawsuits. Senator Clinton says their bill is not an attempt to downplay the pandemic threat.

Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (Democrat, New York): But what Senator Roberts and I worried about is that if we didn't have a system in place to deal with ordinary influenza vaccine, how are we going to deal with a pandemic? So we don't want to get the cart before the horse.

ROVNER: What's ironic about all this activity is that very little of it is new. Bush administration health officials have been working on a pandemic flu plan and talking about pandemic flu for several years. More than a dozen different bills outlining preparation plans have already been introduced in the House and Senate. Alfred Sommer, former dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, says this last week has felt to him like an out-of-body experience.

Mr. ALFRED SOMMER (Former Dean, Bloomberg School of Public Health): It's a social phenomena. Why do people suddenly get very excited and then they forget about it again, and then everybody runs around like a chicken without a head, speaking of chickens?

ROVNER: Sommer says he's pleased that the often ignored issue of public health is taking center stage for a change, but he's worried about whether Congress is in this fight for the long haul.

Mr. SOMMER: They will spend money for what is presumed to be an immediate threat, and that's why there's all the thrashing around right now. And if nothing happens in the next three months, they will completely forget about it. I guarantee it. It happens every year.

ROVNER: Lawmakers insist that won't happen this time, but they said that same thing after the 2001 bioterror attacks, too. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: The measuring stick for flu outbreaks is the 1918 pandemic. Find out why this is the most feared of all at our Web site, npr.org.

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