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U.S.: Flu pandemic could be worse than terrorist attack

White House unveils 'road map' for potential deadly outbreak





United States
Flu Season
George W. Bush
White House

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A disease pandemic could have more impact than a terrorist attack or a hurricane and might be comparable in scope to a war, a new White House report says.

The report, released Wednesday, offered proposals for how to respond to any pandemic outbreak, including the possibility of bird flu sweeping across the nation.

It's based on a worst-case scenario in which flu kills 2 million people, infects 50 million and puts 40 percent of workers out of commission.

White House officials say there is no need for alarm, given that a pandemic doesn't exist and so far, there's no evidence of easy human-to-human transmission of avian flu and its deadly H5N1 strain.

"It is impossible to predict whether the H5N1 virus will lead to a pandemic," the report said, "but history suggests that if it does not, another novel influenza virus will emerge at some point in the future and threaten an unprotected human population. ...

"Preparedness for a pandemic requires the establishment of infrastructure and capacity, a process that can take years," the report continued. "For this reason, significant steps must be taken now."

Recommendations include:

  • stockpiling vaccines and developing a new one specific to a human flu strain;
  • encouraging quarantines for infected people;
  • pushing for mandatory evacuations only in the most extreme cases;
  • encouraging business practices that minimize contact among employees, such as teleconferences and liberal leave policies;
  • deploying the National Guard in cases of civil unrest; and
  • restricting travel.
  • White House officials deflected suggestions that a pandemic would create chaos.

    "Good planning and preparation will prevent it from being chaotic," White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend told reporters. "It just will."

    "It will not be a single-moment-in-time event. It will unfold slowly over days, weeks, months. It will not be in all places at the same time. There's good news to that," Townsend said.

    "It allows us to take mitigation measures, both at the federal, state and local level, at the community and individual level, that can have a direct impact on how many people get sick and how badly it affects the economy."

    Townsend called the implementation plan a "road map" that takes the principles of President Bush's strategy, outlined in November, and puts them into action for federal departments and agencies.

    It covers both government and nongovernment actions to prepare for a potential pandemic, she said.

    Some observers said they are worried about funding for the private-sector recommendations.

    "My biggest concern is that there's a fair amount of money now on the table for vaccine development and for antiviral, like Tamiflu, stockpiling," said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. "What is very much shortchanged though ... is the ability to prepare hospitals and local communities to take care of the millions and millions of people who will get sick."

    Appearing on CNN's "American Morning," Redlener said if a pandemic strikes, 10 million to 15 million people might be sick enough to need hospitalization, and "the hospitals in America are simply not ready to cope with that kind of input."

    Townsend's response was that states and local communities have their own budgets and pandemic preparedness needs to be a priority for them.

    The administration's 228-page report includes more than 300 recommendations for how the public and private sectors should tackle a possible pandemic.

    Some critics have questioned why the document doesn't include plans to close U.S. borders.

    But White House officials said that such a move would just be a minor speed bump for a looming pandemic.

    "If you were to eliminate or stop 90 percent of travelers with flu from arriving in this country, you might delay the peak of a pandemic by one to two weeks," Venkayya said. "And if you limit that number by up to 99 percent, some models show that you might delay the pandemic another one to two weeks."

    The first installment of the money Bush requested to support the effort -- $3.8 billion of the $7.1 billion -- was included in a Defense Department supplemental appropriation he signed December 30.

    When Bush presented the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza last year, he described it as the country's approach "to address the threat of pandemic influenza, whether it results from the strain currently in birds in Asia or another influenza virus."

    "It outlines how we intend to prepare, detect and respond to a pandemic," he said. "It also outlines the important roles to be played not only by the federal government but also by state and local governments, private industry, our international partners and most importantly individual citizens, including you and your families."

    According to the strategy document, its intent is "stopping, slowing or otherwise limiting the spread of a pandemic to the United States; limiting the domestic spread of a pandemic, and mitigating disease, suffering and death; and sustaining infrastructure and mitigating impact to the economy and the functioning of society."

    Pillars of the strategy include preparedness and communication, surveillance and detection, and response and containment, the document said.

    Redlener advises people to make their own preparations, including having enough food and other supplies on hand to stay at home for five to seven days.

    CNN's Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.

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