U.S. health officials acknowledge they do not know if the H5N1 flu virus that has led to the deaths of millions of poultry in Asia and has recently been found in Europe, may well mutate into a version that would spark a worldwide pandemic among humans. They emphasize that being prepared is the best defense.
The reason health authorities are so worried about the H5N1 virus is because it is relatively lethal. About 70 people have died from the flu, or about half of the more than 140 confirmed human cases.
The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Julie Gerberding told the CBS television program Face the Nation, Washington wants to be ready for the worst. "We very concerned about the H5N1 influenza that is in Asia and Eastern Europe right now," she said. "We have no idea whether it will become transmissible from person to another, efficiently. But we have got to take the steps now to get prepared for that."
These steps include a multi-billion dollar federal plan to vaccinate Americans, acquire anti-viral drugs and develop new vaccines.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told CNN's Late Edition that wild birds continue to spread the virus around the world. "That means that, ultimately, it would find its way to the United States. We need to be prepared," he said. "We also need to be prepared to see a continued stream of people who are infected by contact with those birds."
He emphasized that humans infected with avian flu usually get it from coming into close and prolonged contact with raw poultry, not cooked poultry. He said U.S. authorities are concerned about the current H5N1 virus because it has similar genetic characteristics to the virus that killed millions of people worldwide in 1918. "And what we do know is that the virus continues to mutate, and it will ultimately reach some form that either will burn out, or that some new virus, which is already out there generating, will begin to mutate," he said. "We do not know if it will be this avian H5N1 virus. What we do know is that history tells us, they have happened in the past, they will happen in the future, and we are not prepared. We need to be."
Secretary Leavitt said he is confident U.S. scientists can develop an effective vaccine. The challenge, he added, will be making enough of it, for all Americans, quickly enough. "We have a vaccine that we know produces a sufficient immune response," he said, "but when the actual virus makes that skip or makes that transition into a human to human transmission, it will be a different virus. It will be a cousin to this one. But we know we can make a vaccine. What we do not have is the capacity to replicate it fast enough so that every American could have one."
Secretary Leavitt said U.S. officials hope to be able to eventually provide each American with what he described as a "tailor-made" vaccine, within six months of any pandemic virus outbreak.