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White House Warns Pandemic Flu Could Limit Travel, Food, Water

WASHINGTON, DC, May 3, 2006 (ENS) - In the event of a bird flu pandemic, air and ground travel may be limited, and food and water supplies may be disrupted across the United States, according to planning guidelines issued today by the White House. The government advises people to stockpile food and water and plan for a situation in which they will not be able to get to work, school, health care facilities, banks, stores, restaurants, government offices, and post offices.

The Implementation Plan released today is an extension of the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, announced by President George W. Bush last November. The document warns that a severe pandemic could change the patterns of daily life for some time, saying, "An especially severe influenza pandemic could lead to high levels of illness, death, social disruption, and economic loss."

President Bush said, "The Plan describes more than 300 critical actions, many of which have already been initiated, to address the threat of pandemic influenza."

"Our efforts require the participation of, and coordination by, all levels of government and segments of society," the President said. "State and local governments must be prepared, and my administration will work with them to provide the necessary guidance in order to best protect their citizens. No less important will be the actions of individual citizens, whose participation is necessary to the success of these efforts."

The effects of a pandemic could be serious and long-lasting, the White House warns. "Stock a supply of water and food. During a pandemic you may not be able to get to a store. Even if you can get to a store, it may be out of supplies. Public waterworks services may also be interrupted," the Plan states.

The government recommends that government agencies and the private sector plan with the assumption that up to 40 percent of their staff may be absent for periods of about two weeks at the height of a pandemic wave with lower levels of staff absent for a few weeks on either side of the peak.

The 233 page Implementation Plan relies on preparedness, coordination and identification of potential issues for all sectors of society.

It recommends that key federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement and public safety officials be brought together with experts in the public health and medical community, to discuss the influenza preparedness and response issues they may face, including maintaining civil order and how to effectively implement and enforce a quarantine or other restrictive measures.

While a flu pandemic is different from seasonal influenza because it stems from a new virus that people have not been exposed to before, the primary strategies for preventing pandemic influenza are the same as those for seasonal influenza: vaccination; early detection and treatment with antiviral medications; and the use of infection control measures to prevent transmission.

When a pandemic begins, only a limited stockpile of partially matched pandemic vaccine may be available. A virus-specific vaccine to protect personnel will not be available until four to six months after isolation of the pandemic virus, the Implementation Plan states.

This is because the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus is still primarily a disease of birds. To date, 205 people worldwide have died from bird flu, but human infection requires close contact with infected birds. Only a few people have died from person-to-person transmission from one family member to another.

Health officials are concerned that the H5N1 viral strain could mutate into a virus that is easily transmitted between humans, but that has not yet occurred. Until it does, vaccine manufacturers cannot make a vaccine, which depends upon having a specific virus to work with.

Antiviral drugs do exist to treat people who are ill, but the Implementation Plan warns that they will be limited throughout a pandemic. Until sufficient stockpiles of antiviral drugs have been established, these medications may be available for treatment of only some symptomatic individuals. Priority will be given to law and order and healthcare officials and other essential personnel.

Therefore, the appropriate and thorough application of infection control measures remains the key to limiting transmission, delaying the spread of a pandemic, and protecting personnel.

People are warned to stay at least three feet away from anyone who is ill with the bird flu. People should turn their head away from direct coughs or sneezes; and wash their hands with soap and water, alcohol-based hand rub, or antiseptic handwash after having contact with respiratory secretions and contaminated objects or materials, according to the Implementation Plan.

The benefit of wearing disposable surgical or procedure masks at school or in the workplace has not been established, the guidelines state. "Mask use by the public should be based on risk, including the frequency of exposure and closeness of contact with potentially infectious persons. Routine mask use in public should be permitted, but not required."

Critics of the plan focused on the fact that it is not yet fully funded.

General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters,
AFL-CIO/CLC, Harold Schaitberger, said today, "The President outlined a $7.1 billion spending plan to combat an outbreak, but Congress has approved just $3.8 billion to date."

Schaitberger said the plan neglects to provide for the health of fire fighters and emergency medical professionals who will be on the front lines in responding to a flu outbreak.

"State and local preparedness is paramount," Schaitberger said, "because the federal government made it clear today that people can't count on a rescue effort orchestrated by Washington officials. Fire fighters and emergency medical services personnel will be the first ones responding to the needs of America's citizens during a pandemic."

"Fire fighters and paramedics will face enough risk caring for people exposed to pandemic flu," he said. "They shouldn't be exposed to greater risk because states, cities and towns are ill-prepared to respond to an outbreak that health officials have warned for months could sweep across our nation."

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that not only has the President approved less than half of the $8 billion passed by the Senate for pandemic preparedness and $3.3 billion less than the President himself said was necessary for this purpose, but President Bush has failed to include the remainder of these funds in his most recent emergency supplemental appropriations request to Congress.

"That is why Senate Democrats, led by [Iowa] Senator [Tom] Harkin, passed an amendment to add an additional $2.3 billion to the Senate Supplemental Appropriations bill. "If we do not address this funding shortfall in the final bill, we will not have adequate resources to fund key protections in a timely manner," said Reid.

Speaking at a White House media briefing today, Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend responded to the criticism that the White House has not spent even half of the funds already appropriated for pandemic flu preparedness, saying, "Of the $3.7 or .8 billion that is in the -- was in the emergency supplemental, we've already obligation [sic] $1.8 billion of that. The rest of the money will be obligated before the end of the fiscal year," she said.

"The plan outlines how the federal government will invest the $7.1 billion that was requested from Congress, including $3.8 billion that has already been appropriated," Townsend said.

Avian influenza is a viral disease that infects chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, ducks, geese and guinea fowl as well as migratory waterfowl. The strain that is currently a problem is H5N1.

"This is not the beginning of our investment in pandemic preparedness," she said. "We have invested already over $6 billion in public health and medical infrastructure since 2001. Many of those investments are directly relevant to pandemic preparedness."

Senator Reid is seeking to eliminate comprehensive protections for pharmaceutical manufacturers who escape liability even if their products harm patients.

Reid warned today that a measure "inserted into legislation in the dead of night without any debate last December ... gives unprecedented and sweeping liability protections to the pharmaceutical industry even when Americans are harmed by their medicines."

"The liability provisions do not provide for compensation to victims who are injured and shield manufacturers even if their actions constitute reckless wrongdoing," Reid said. "I support reasonable protections for vaccine makers whose products may cause unforeseen or unpreventable harm, but protections must be narrowly tailored and must be accompanied with protections and compensation for injured patients.²

The Implementation Plan says that people at high risk for severe and fatal infection "cannot be predicted with certainty" but are likely to include pregnant women; persons with compromised immune systems due to cancer, AIDS, history of organ transplant, or other medical conditions; persons less than age 65 with underlying chronic conditions; and persons age 65 or greater.

Organizations should consider providing additional protections for employees falling into categories identified as being at high risk for severe or fatal infection. Such protections could include reassignment from positions that entailed a high degree of unavoidable social contact or likely exposure to patients with influenza, and flexibility in terms of worksite or work hours.

The plan suggests substituting teleconferences for face-to-face meetings, telecommuting, the use of other social distancing techniques, and the implementation of liberal leave policies for persons with sick family members, which may eliminate or reduce the likelihood of contact with infected individuals.

To view the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza: Implementation Plan see:  http://www.whitehouse.gov/homeland/pandemic-influenza-implementation.html