The United States is taking steps to combat a possible avian influenza pandemic. The current strain, known as H5N1, has already killed 62 people in Southeast Asia but experts say the virus could mutate into a deadlier form that could kill millions of people around the world.
U.S. President George Bush outlined a $7.1 billion plan to protect Americans and others against a possible worldwide flu epidemic. Speaking at the National Institutes of Health outside Washington, Mr. Bush said a pandemic was not imminent but warned that the avian flu virus had developed some characteristics that could turn it into a super-flu, a mutated strain for which people have no natural immunity and one that can spread easily from person to person.
"There is no pandemic flu in our country or in the world at this time, but if we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare," said the president.
The president's strategy includes $1.2 billion to purchase vaccines that would protect 20 million Americans from the current avian flu strain, $1 billion to stockpile anti-viral drugs and $2.8 billion to speed the development of new vaccines. He also asked Congress to give vaccine-makers greater protection from lawsuits.
"In the past three decades, the number of vaccine manufacturers in America has plummeted as the industry has been flooded with lawsuits. Today there's only one manufacturer in the United States that can produce influenza vaccine. That leaves our nation vulnerable in the event of a pandemic.”
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt says it's a worldwide problem. "The hard truth is that the capacity doesn't exist within the United States to produce vaccines at sufficient speed and sufficient quantity to reach every American. That position exists all over the world and it needs to change.”
Biological emergency experts say it takes about six months to get a vaccine ready for distribution. David Heyman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that means many Americans would die if a pandemic were to happen now.
"There's no question we need vaccines and we need antivirals; there's tremendous emphasis on that for good reason,” said Mr. Heyman, “but there's not enough emphasis on non-medical interventions that can take place: disease exposure controls, the tools that are available for infection control and hygiene and making sure people don't spread the disease between each other."
The administration plan, to be released in more detail this week, includes more funding for state and local emergency plans. Mr. Heyman says local involvement is important for containing the virus but he says the key to preventing an outbreak is early detection on a global scale.
"There are no political boundaries when it comes to microbes traveling around the world and so the disease will spread without any consideration. That's obviously quite catastrophic and far greater than any kind of terrorist attack that we've ever imagined, even on a nuclear level, you're talking about millions of possible casualties."
Avian-borne viruses have produced three pandemics in the last century. One, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, killed more than 20 million people around the world.