Bush unveils $7.1 billion plan to prepare for flu pandemic
Improving vaccines, stockpiling antiviral drugs part of strategy
President Bush announces his pandemic emergency plan Tuesday at the National Institutes of Health.
A flu pandemic is a global outbreak caused when a new form of the influenza A virus emerges that can spread easily between humans, or an older form re-emerges after a long time. The pandemic can cause widespread illness and death because people's immune systems offer little protection against the new virus. The 1918 "Spanish flu" pandemic killed more than 500,000 people in the United States and up to 50 million worldwide.
BUSH PANDEMIC PLAN
President Bush said Tuesday he is making these requests from Congress as part of his influenza pandemic plan:
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush announced Tuesday that he would ask Congress for $7.1 billion in emergency funding to prepare the country for a possible flu pandemic.
In a speech at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, Bush said that there had not been an outbreak in the United States or the rest of the world, but stressed that health officials must be ready.
"A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire," Bush said. "If caught early, it might be extinguished with limited damage; if allowed to smolder undetected, it can grow to an inferno that spreads quickly beyond our ability to control it." (Watch Bush discuss his pandemic flu strategy -- 6:17)
Bush said that health officials were concerned about the avian flu, which has spread to birds in 16 countries, infected 121 people and killed 62, according to the World Health Organization.
That strain -- known as the H5N1 -- does not spread easily from person to person, but health experts said they fear that it could mutate.
"If the virus were to develop the capacity for sustained human-to-human transmission, it could spread quickly across the globe," Bush said. (Transcript)
The administration's plan provides funding for early detection, containment and treatment of an outbreak.
It also calls for improving the process of creating flu vaccines and stockpiling antiviral drugs.
Bush said he has asked Congress for $251 million to help other countries train personnel and draw up plans to detect and contain any outbreak.
To strengthen domestic surveillance, the United States is launching the National Biosurveillance Initiative "to detect, quantify and respond to outbreaks of disease in humans and animals."
Bush said he would ask for $1.2 billion to buy enough bird flu vaccine for 20 million people. He said the vaccine probably would not be a perfect match for a pandemic flu, but it could help.
"A vaccine against the current avian flu virus would likely offer some protection against a pandemic strain and possibly save many lives in the first critical months of an outbreak," Bush said.
He said he also is asking Congress for $2.8 billion to fund a "crash program" to accelerate the development of new technology to speed vaccine makers' ability to produce enough vaccine to protect every American.
Scientists must wait until a new strain emerges to create a vaccine and currently rely on a cumbersome method that uses chicken eggs to grow the antibodies.
"In the event of a pandemic, this antiquated process would take many, many months to produce a vaccine," Bush said. "And it would not allow us to produce enough vaccine for every American in time."
He also said he will ask Congress to pass legislation that would limit legal liability of vaccine makers to encourage more to enter the market. At present, the United States is home to one vaccine producer.
The plan also calls for spending $1 billion to stockpile antiviral drugs -- such as Tamiflu and Relenza -- to protect first-responders and $583 million for "pandemic preparedness," that would include $100 million for states to make plans.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told CNN earlier Tuesday that a key element of the plan is preparing communities to identify and contain an outbreak as quickly as possible and to treat infected patients.
"A pandemic is unique among disasters. It could happen in 5,000 different communities around the world at the same time, and no central place can manage all of those difficulties, and so local communities need to be ready, and part of the president's plan is to assure that they are," Leavitt said. (Watch Leavitt discuss plans to fight the flu -- 3:40)
The administration's announcement comes as disaster coordinators from Pacific Rim countries discuss ways to head off a flu pandemic. (Full story)
Thailand on Monday reported its 20th human victim of the disease since 2003 and the third this year. (Full story)
On Monday, Canada said it had discovered a strain of H5 avian flu in wild birds but was still testing to see if it was the N subtype.
So far, the disease does not appear to infect people easily, but health experts said they fear that it could mutate and acquire the ability to infect large numbers of people. Should that happen, without immediate and effective interventions to contain it, the global impact could be incalculable.
There have been three pandemics in the past century, and global health experts have said the world is overdue for another.
Bush noted Tuesday that three flu pandemics hit the country in the last century and that virus from birds contributed to each of them.
The most severe outbreak, in 1918, killed more than 500,000 Americans. The others occurred in 1957 and 1968.
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