- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

The White House on Thursday announced plans for a summit next week to launch a “national influenza campaign” aimed at blunting the effects of a potentially severe outbreak of H1N1 virus, or swine flu, this fall.

The all-day summit on July 9 will be hosted by secretaries for the departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and Education, along with one of President Obama’s top national security advisers.

“Scientists and public health experts forecast that the impact of H1N1 may well worsen in the fall - when the regular flu season hits, or even earlier, when schools start to open - which is only five or six weeks away in some cases,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

Mrs. Sebelius said the gathering at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda will bring in “public and private officials experienced in public health and emergency preparedness to share what they learned fighting the first wave of the new flu strain this spring and to discuss ways to defend against the next assault.”

Health experts have been warning about a major outbreak of a killer flu virus for the past few years, with the potential not only for mass deaths but also for severe disruption of domestic and international markets and infrastructure.

The latest strain of swine flu appeared in April and has infected nearly 34,000 people in the United States, killing 170, according to Web site of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus is expected to return and likely mutate into a potentially more lethal form this fall.

The announcement of a summit came two days after Mr. Obama met at the White House with former government and health officials who experienced a major influenza scare in 1976 while in office.

That year, when a soldier in Fort Dix, N.J., died from the flu strain, health experts feared that it could be the return of a virus similar to the one that killed at least 675,000 in the United States in 1918, and an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

Alarmed government officials ordered mass immunizations. But the flu did not turn out to be lethal as had been feared, and the immunizations ended up killing a handful of people and sickening others.

Mr. Obama said he met with the officials from 1976 to “further prepare this nation for the possibility of a more severe outbreak of H1N1 flu,” but it also shows he is mindful of the dangers of overreacting.

Nonetheless, he indicated this week that the issue remains a priority for him. Speaking at a health care forum Wednesday in Northern Virginia, the president cited the flu as one of his major foreign-policy challenges.

“I’ve got a war in Afghanistan, we haven’t gotten the troops out of Iraq yet,” Mr. Obama said. “I’ve got North Korea and Iran, and H1N1 flu.”