U.S. Unprepared for Deadly Avian Flu - KTRE.com | Lufkin and Nacogdoches, Texas


U.S. Unprepared for Deadly Avian Flu

There are new concerns in the Senate over whether the United States is prepared for the mysterious and deadly avian flu.

The avian flu virus is spread by chickens, ducks and other birds and has been a problem in Southeast Asia for years. Since late 2003, it has killed at least 65 people in four Asian countries and has also been found in birds in Russia and Europe.

With strains of the virus found in humans, there has been growing concern among U.S. officials about the possibility of a pandemic and whether the United States is prepared to combat the disease.

"Experts warn that a global, cataclysmic pandemic is not a question of 'if' but 'when,' " said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Millions of Americans Could Be Infected; Treatment Shortage

The draft report of the federal government's emergency plan predicts that as many as 200 million Americans could be infected and 200,000 could die within a few months if the avian flu came to the United States. Right now, there is no vaccine to stop the flu.

"The first thing is, everybody in America's going to say, 'Where's a vaccine?' And they're going to find out that it's really darned hard to make a vaccine," said Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It takes a really long time."

Although there is no avian flu vaccine, there is one medicine to treat it: Tamiflu. Tamiflu is made by the Roche pharmaceutical company with its plant in Switzerland. Roche says it has been selling Tamiflu for years. Scientists, however, have only recently realized that it is the sole medicine proven effective against avian flu. This has sparked a huge demand for Tamiflu and a shortage of the medicine.

"Our current stockpile is around 2 ½ million courses of treatment," Garrett said. "[It] Looks like we have a shortage."

United States Not at Top of Waiting List

Roche has set up a first-come, first-served waiting list for Tamiflu and sources told ABC News that the United States is nowhere near the top of that list. U.S. officials say they are working to obtain Tamiflu quickly.

"Do we wish we had ordered it sooner and more of it? I suspect one could say yes," said Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt. "Are we moving rapidly to assure that we have it? The answer is also yes."

However, when asked why the United States did not order Tamiflu earlier, Leavitt said, "I can't answer that. I don't know the answer."

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