America's Response to Avian Flu
Published on Sunday, October 16, 2005 by the Boston Globe
America's Response to Avian Flu
by Edward M. Kennedy

The race against time by the people of the Gulf Coast to save themselves from Hurricane Katrina is a tragic episode in our recent history. We watched as fellow citizens unable to escape in time cried out desperately for help as the storm hit and the flood waters overwhelmed the city. The indelible images of the sick and elderly succumbing to the flood, families torn apart by evacuations, and citizens trapped without food or basic sanitation are powerful reminders that our preparation and response was much too little and too late.

The outbreak of avian flu in Asia and its recent spread to Europe signals another race against time. We have a chance to protect ourselves before time runs out. The disease has affected relatively few people so far, since human-to-human transmission is rare. But one out of every two people infected dies, and experts warn that a large-scale pandemic could occur at any time as the virus improves its capability to attack humans.

In 1918, we saw how pandemic flu could cripple our nation. As the Spanish flu swept across the nation, half a million Americans died. Entire cities and even our military were brought to a standstill by the invisible, alarmingly efficient killer, and researchers have found striking similarities between the virus of 1918 and the virus currently affecting Asia. As other nations move ahead to prevent a potentially devastating flu pandemic, we are falling dangerously behind.

Last winter, just as they were unprepared for Katrina, the administration did not have a backup plan when a plant making nearly half of the nation's flu vaccine supply shut down. Now they still don't have a plan to prepare for a pandemic flu. Other nations have long recognized the urgency of such planning. Japan issued its plan in 1997. Canada, Britain, and Australia each announced their plan over a year ago. They're putting their plans into action right now, while we're waiting to read ours for the first time. America deserves better. Massachusetts issued its first plan for pandemic flu nearly four years ago. Still, much remains to be done to protect against the flu that requires national guidance -- a finalized federal plan is critical to our efforts.

We also don't have enough antiviral medicine to treat flu victims. The World Health Organization has asked nations to put aside enough medicine to treat 25 percent of their population as a stopgap until we develop an effective vaccine. We have only enough to treat 2 percent of Americans, while nations such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands acquired a sufficient supply months ago. Current skyrocketing demand for flu medicines means that it will take months or even years to build up an adequate stockpile. We must start the process of acquiring such medicine immediately.

In other ways as well, the administration continues to weaken our ability to respond quickly to a pandemic. It cut $150 million this year from programs to improve public health preparedness and hospital surge capacity. The administration has rightly increased federal funds for a national stockpile of medicines, but this funding must not come at the expense of the ability of our local hospitals and public health departments to respond to a pandemic.

Lack of effective planning for the flu also affects us here in Massachusetts. We do not have adequate capacity in the United States to produce flu vaccines. During the flu debacle last year, half of Massachusetts's most vulnerable residents -- pregnant women, children, and the elderly -- received the vaccine last year. For many of those not vaccinated, we simply had no vaccine to give them. Such a gross failure of the administration to plan for the most basic protection against disease is unacceptable.

The Pandemic Preparedness and Response Act that Senators Harry Reid of Nevada, Barack Obama of Illinois, Evan Bayh of Indiana, and I have proposed will strengthen our defense against flu at home and abroad. It requires the administration to take immediate action to finalize the national preparedness plan and appoint a director accountable for its implementation. The bill also expands global surveillance and international cooperation, in order to detect a deadly strain of a virus rapidly and prevent its spread. It also calls on the Department of Health and Human Services to stockpile enough drugs to treat 50 percent of the population, to enhance our domestic capacity to produce vaccines, and to address the need for hospital surge capacity.

Avian flu continues its migration from Asia to Europe, and the clock is ticking in our race against it. With no preparedness plan, limited access to antiviral drugs, and a weakened public health infrastructure, the health of the nation is at risk. It would be a colossal blunder to leave preparations to chance, or wait until disaster strikes to take action. The time to protect Americans from a pandemic flu virus is now. We can't afford to be late in responding to disaster again.

Edward M. Kennedy is the senior US senator from Massachusetts.

Copyright 2005 Boston Globe