President Bush says he is concerned about the possibility of a global bird flu pandemic. The president told reporters he is studying various plans for dealing with it, including better international surveillance and using the U.S. military to enforce a domestic quarantine.
It has been 37 years since the last global flu pandemic and public health experts say it is just a matter of time before another occurs. Like the experts, Mr. Bush says he fears the avian flu outbreaks that have killed more than 60 people in Asia could develop into that pandemic.
"I am concerned about avian flu," said President Bush. "I am concerned about what an avian flu outbreak could mean for the United States and the world."
The president says he spoke at the United Nations last month with many world leaders about the need to be aware of bird flu and report new cases rapidly to the World Health Organization, which coordinates international monitoring.
"The reporting needs to be not only on the birds that have fallen ill, but also on tracing the capacity of the virus to go from bird to person to person," he said. "That is when it gets dangerous: when it goes bird, person, person. And we need to know on a real-time basis as quickly as possible the facts so that the world scientific community can analyze the facts and begin to deal with it."
Mr. Bush says his administration is considering various plans for dealing with a potential bird flu pandemic, including boosting stockpiles of vaccine. U.S. public health researchers have developed one, but the president says currently it can be produced only in limited supply.
"So one of the issues is how do we encourage the manufacturing capacity of the country, and maybe the world, to be prepared to deal with the outbreak of a pandemic," asked George W. Bush. "In other words, can we surge enough production [make enough vaccine] to be able to help deal with the issue?"
Last month, the U.S. Senate passed a measure to spend nearly $4 billion to stockpile flu vaccine and strengthen global efforts to detect the spread of avian flu. The bill must be approved by the House of Representatives.
Other tactics President Bush says he is considering are imposing a quarantine if avian flu breaks out in the United States and ordering the military to enforce it.
"Obviously, the best way to deal with a pandemic is to isolate it and keep it isolated in the region in which it begins," he said.
Mr. Bush acknowledges that the notion of a quarantine and enforcing it with troops would be controversial in Congress and in the 50 U.S. states, but he says the challenge of avian flu makes it an important debate for lawmakers.