Senate Democrats

Democrats Press for Resources to Prevent Avian Flu Pandemic

Washington, D.C. – Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), top Democrat on the subcommittee that funds health care initiatives, with Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Ranking Member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) joined together today to announce a proposal to provide a substantial boost in resources to prepare for a potential outbreak of the avian flu. Senator Harkin will lead this effort by offering the amendment to the Defense Appropriations measure currently under consideration in the Senate.

“If we have learned anything from the recent disasters on the Gulf Coast, it is that we must confidently prepare for disasters before they strike so that we are not left picking up the pieces,” said Harkin. “The possibility of an avian flu pandemic is very real. It would be worse than SARS, worse than anything else we have seen. I am gravely concerned that this country is woefully unprepared and that time is running out.”

“We are committed to doing everything we can to protect Americans, from natural disasters, a terrorist strike or a health pandemic,” said Reid. “With the widespread warnings that we have received regarding an avian flu pandemic, it would be morally wrong and irresponsible for us not to act and prepare Americas. Together, we can do better than waiting until it is too late, we must act now.”

Avian flu, also known as the bird flu, is a virus that to date has only been passed from birds to humans. However, experts predict that it is only a matter of time before the virus mutates and is be able to easily spread between humans creating a widespread public health crisis. In a matter of weeks, an outbreak in China, Vietnam or Cambodia could spread rapidly and trigger a world-wide outbreak facilitated by international travel and globalization. Harkin and Reid’s amendment called for a greater investment in our preparedness efforts including increased resources for public health infrastructure, global surveillance and detection, vaccines, and anti-viral stockpiles.

“America is already behind in recognizing and preparing for a potentially deadly and economically devastating avian flu pandemic that public health experts say is not a matter of if but when,” said Obama. “We must face the reality that in this age when you can get on a plane in Bangkok and arrive in Chicago in hours, this is not a problem isolated half a world away but one that could impact us right here at home.”

The Republican Congress and this Administration have failed in their basic duty to protect the American people from a deadly flu outbreak – just as they failed to prepare adequately for the hurricanes that devastated the Gulf Coast. Funds for public health preparedness have been cut. Resources to help hospitals cope with epidemics have been denied. Needed medicines have not been stockpiled,” said Kennedy. “Let us pray that the American people do not have to pay a price for these glaring failures — and let us take the actions needed to see that their health is protected. To avoid a deadly flu epidemic, we must act right away to provide $4 billion to stockpile vaccines and enable our hospitals and clinics to meet the challenge.

“We know that avian flu is a real killer, and we shouldn’t wait until it’s too late to protect people’s lives,” Bayh said. “It’s time that Congress act on the lessons learned during the past two vaccine shortages and begin preparing the country for a possible flu pandemic today. This legislation will provide state and local governments with the funding they need to prepare for a large-scale flu emergency and will allow us to purchase the antivirals we need to fight avian flu.”

Specifically, the amendment would provide resources to:

  • Double global surveillance of the avian flu through the Centers for Disease Control to identify and contain the avian flu virus around the world as soon as possible.
  • Restore President Bush’s budget cuts to local and state public health departments and emergency preparedness activities to help communities prepare to recognize, treat, and quarantine the avian flu virus if it reaches our shores. The President’s budget cut $122 million from the grants to state and local public health departments for emergency preparedness activities, grants that were first funded by Harkin as Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks.
  • Increase stockpiles of Tamiflu, the one known antiviral drug to be effective against the current strains of the avian flu. The World Health Organization has recommended that each country stockpile enough Tamiflu for 40 percent of their population. Though other countries have heeded this warning, the United States currently has only two million doses on hand – enough for one percent of the population. The additional resources would steadily add to the national stockpile, with a goal of accumulating enough Tamiflu to serve 50 percent of the population.
  • Build up and strengthen our vaccine infrastructure. The United States currently does not have the capacity to create enough vaccines here at home. In the event of a pandemic, the US would have to rely on imported vaccines which countries may be unwilling to export.
  • Provide new resources for outreach and education efforts to both health care providers and the public

Influenza viruses cause 20,000 to 40,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Many of these could be prevented with increased use of the influenza vaccine. According to conservative estimates by experts, 90,000 to 300,000 Americans and up to 50 million people worldwide could die if left unprotected during an influenza pandemic.