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CDC: U.S. ready if avian flu breaks out

Gerberding says pandemic possible but not imminent

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The nation's top disease expert said Tuesday that the federal government has prepared a plan to stem a possible outbreak of avian flu among humans, although the danger of it is not high.

The flu plan addresses unpredictable mutations of the virus, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. Mutations could make transmissions from person-to-person more efficient.

"We hope we'll never use this plan, but we want to be prepared, just in case," she said.

Gerberding acknowledged the possibility that avian flu could kill millions of people is a real one.

"I think we're in a situation right now where it would not be an imminent problem to see avian flu emerge," she told CNN. "But all of the ingredients that could create a more serious human-to-human spread are in place. So it's really my job and the CDC's job to be worried about that possibility."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told CNN that the potential for pandemic is low. Asian countries have documented 55 cases in which the avian flu has jumped from birds to humans, and only one in which it was passed from human to human. But he said that could change if the virus mutates.

"It's still inefficient. It's not something we need to panic about. But it's giving us a big wake-up call," Fauci said.

World Health Organization officials say the avian flu, often called the bird flu, was identified in animals, primarily poultry, last year in 10 countries and is circulating in four: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia. When people are infected, it has a high mortality rate: Of the more than 50 who have been infected with the disease, more than 40 have died.

Thousands of other people in Asia have been exposed to the disease, which concerns Gerberding.

"There are more pigs, people and poultry in that environment than we've ever seen before," she said. "That is the formula for the emergence of new flu strains."

"Avian influenza in Asia poses a very significant public health threat," said Dr. Klaus Stohr, with the World Health Organization's global influenza program. "The disease is prevalent in several countries. It has never been so widespread at any time during the last century."

If the airborne virus were to undergo a genetic change making its transmission from person-to-person more efficient, the impact could be global in the jet age, Stohr said.

"That virus would travel around the world in less than six to eight months," he predicted.

At present, there is no vaccine to protect people from the strain. Officials at the C.D.C. and W.H.O. say they're sending teams across Asia to monitor the flu strain's advance and have ordered clinical trials of possible vaccines.

The United States already is stockpiling 2 million doses of one vaccine in those trials in the event a pandemic breaks out, Fauci said. Should the virus begin to spread more efficiently among humans, "You have a very small window -- measured in months, usually -- to get that vaccine off the ground," he said.

Gerberding urged anyone traveling to western Asia to stay away from poultry markets.

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