- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A flu pandemic would cause massive disruptions lasting for months, and cities, states and businesses must make plans now to keep functioning and not count on a federal rescue, the Bush administration said yesterday.

“Our nation will face this global threat united in purpose and united in action in order to best protect our families, our communities, our nation and our world from the threat of pandemic influenza,” President Bush said in a letter to Americans noting the release of an updated national pandemic response strategy.

Mr. Bush last fall proposed a $7.1 billion plan to prepare for the next worldwide outbreak of a super-strain of influenza. The report released yesterday updates that plan, an incremental step that basically outlines exactly which government agency is responsible for each of about 300 tasks, many already under way.

Even the most draconian steps, such as shutting down U.S. borders against outbreaks abroad, almost certainly would fail to keep a flu pandemic from spreading here, the report acknowledges — and thus it outlines more limited travel restrictions that would be used instead.

Influenza pandemics strike every few decades when a newly discovered strain arises. It is impossible to predict when the next will occur, although concern is rising that the Asian bird flu virus, the H5N1 strain, might lead to a pandemic if it starts spreading easily from person to person.

“I should make clear from the outset that we do not know if the bird virus we are seeing overseas will ever become … a pandemic,” said Frances Townsend, White House homeland security adviser.

But if that happens, “we will take immediate action to prevent or to slow the spread of the infection,” she added.

If a human outbreak of any super-flu strain occurs abroad, the United States will work with international health officials to try to contain it in the country of origin.

But if the virus escapes and begins a worldwide spread, the report makes clear that the main goal will be to slow that spread, giving time for the nation to brew protective vaccine, dispense stockpiles of critical medical supplies and limit the almost inevitable economic and social chaos.

In a severe pandemic, up to 40 percent of the work force could be off the job for two weeks, the report estimates. Because 85 percent of the systems that are vital to society — food production, medicine and financial services — are privately run, the administration aimed to use the new report to energize businesses in particular to start planning how they will keep operating under those conditions.

A flu pandemic would roll through the country, likely causing six to eight weeks of active infection per community.

“Local communities will have to address the medical and nonmedical impacts of the pandemic with available resources,” the report warns, because the federal government won’t be able to offer the kind of aid expected after hurricanes or other one-time, one-location natural disasters.

The report assumes a worst-case scenario of up to 2 million U.S. deaths. About 36,000 Americans die from influenza-related complications annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Within a year, federal health officials should approve states’ individual pandemic plans, it says.

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