President Bush has announced a $7.1 billion plan to prepare the United States for a possible influenza pandemic. As the country heads into another flu season, the highly infectious strain of avian influenza now reported in Asia and Europe - and the danger it could mutate into a quick-spreading human flu - has Americans concerned that the virus could soon reach their shores.
During one week last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logged 500,000 hits on its avian flu webpage. The United States Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline also received calls from consumers worried about the new deadly strain.
Most callers want tips on how to safely prepare meat and poultry. Hotline Manager Diane Van says the service is an effort to stem the 76,000 cases of food-borne illness each year. When callers ask about avian influenza she informs them, "The highly pathogenic avian influenza does not currently exist in the United States. But that being said, we give safety advice on handling poultry as a general rule."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman David Daigle says consumers fear the highly infectious H5N1 avian strain will mutate and spread rapidly among humans. He says this can happen in a number of ways. "You can infect a human with an avian virus and a common influenza virus and they can actually swap and mutate in such a way that now you have an effective pandemic strain," he says and adds, "It can also mutate or evolve inside of a pig, which can serve as a 'mixing vessel.' And, this is one of the reasons we are watching developments in Southeast Asia so carefully."
About 140 million birds have been killed worldwide in an effort to halt the spread of the H5N1 virus. Since 2003, the microbe has infected 120 people, half of whom have died. Experts say it is not a matter of if, but when the H5N1 virus - now reported in bird flocks in Asia and Europe - reaches the United States.
Responding to that threat earlier this week, President Bush announced a $7.1 billion federal plan to detect outbreaks, build stockpiles of antiviral drugs and new vaccines and ready the nation on the federal, state and local levels.
During a normal flu season, 30,000 Americans die. University of Minnesota public health expert Michael Osterholm says the avian flu pandemic could be much worse - sickening or killing millions of Americans and millions more worldwide. "We can predict now 12 to 18 months of stress of watching loved ones die, of wondering if you are going to have food on the table the next day," he says. "Those are all things that are going to mean that we are going to have to plan -- unlike any other crisis that we have had in literally the last 80-some years in this country."
U.S. Department of Agriculture Assistant Secretary for Food Safety Richard Raymond says individual citizens must also take steps to prepare for a pandemic with water, with food that doesn't necessarily need refrigeration for any naturally occurring disaster such as a blizzard, a hurricane, a tornado or even avian influenza that may upset the infrastructure, and warns, "Perhaps the grocery stores won't be open. Perhaps someone won't be able to run the water treatment plant. So, Americans should have enough in their homes to sustain themselves for at least a week."
In a public health emergency, the national government would coordinate the state and federal responses. Mr. Raymond says the USDA, like other federal agencies, has assumed a heightened state of readiness for the arrival of the bird flu. "We have definitely increased our surveillance, particularly the migratory water fowl," he says. "We have also increased surveillance at the import houses and we plan to do more of that. We also plan to increase the amount of vaccine that would be available to immunize the birds in a state or an area where avian influenza may be found to limit the spread," Raymond says.
Critics say the White House plan - while laudable - doesn't go far enough and that too much of the financial burden of implementing it would fall on the states. More details of the federal response to a possible influenza pandemic are expected in the coming weeks.