President Bush is asking Congress for more than $7 billion in emergency funds to prepare the United States for a possible avian influenza pandemic. The money would be used to develop vaccines, detect outbreaks, stockpile antiviral drugs and increase public awareness.
Past flu pandemics have cost countless lives. And while the current strain of avian flu has only shown up in a few humans, mostly bird handlers, President Bush says the threat is there.
"At this moment, there is no pandemic influenza in the United States or the world," said President Bush. "But if history is our guide, there's reason to be concerned. In the last century, our country and the world have been hit by three influenza pandemics, and viruses from birds contributed to all of them."
Bird flu has been documented in Asia and has reached Europe but has not been detected in the United States. The president points to history as a guide, and says it may only be a matter of time before it jumps from a disease that affects flocks of birds to one that infests whole communities.
"The virus has developed some characteristics needed to cause a pandemic: It has demonstrated the ability to infect human beings, and it has produced a fatal illness in humans," he added. "If the virus were to develop the capacity for sustained human-to-human transmission, it could spread quickly across the globe."
The president says it is a matter of national security. He says the country has received fair warning of the danger and must prepare for an influenza virus that spreads and mutates quickly, and is far more deadly than the seasonal flu.
He cites several priorities: stockpiling vaccines and antiviral drugs, developing new means of vaccine production, and creating better ways to detect outbreaks and contain them before they can spread.
"In the fight against avian and pandemic flu, early detection is our first line of defense," he noted. "A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire: if caught early, it might be extinguished with limited damage; if allowed to smolder undetected, it can grow to an inferno that spreads quickly beyond our ability to control it."
Members of Congress praised the president for backing an all-out preparedness effort. But some said much more is needed. Illinois Democrat Barack Obama said he is worried the administration response will ultimately fall short, given the troubled hurricane relief effort in the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast.
"Let me just say, Mr. President, the United States cannot afford a Katrina-level preparedness or a Katrina-like response to an international outbreak of avian flu," said Mr. Obama.
The Senate has already added emergency funding for flu preparedness to several pending pieces of legislation. However, these measures are now stalled in the House of Representatives where some members are demanding cuts in other domestic programs to offset emergency spending.