- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 9, 2005

From combined dispatches

A draft of the Bush administration’s plan for dealing with an avian-flu pandemic shows the United States is unprepared for the potential disaster.

If avian flu reaches this country, hospitals could be overwhelmed, power and food could be in short supply, and riots could occur at vaccination centers, according to the draft, first reported on yesterday by the New York Times.

“How do you provide food, water … basic security for the population?” asked Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, a government adviser who has a copy of the draft plan and described it for the Associated Press.

The Bush administration has spent the last year updating its plan for how to fight the next flu pandemic. While it is impossible to say whether one will strike, the fear is that the avian flu in Asia could trigger a pandemic if it mutates into a form that spreads easily among humans.

A spokeswoman for Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt told the Times the document it had was a draft and had not been finalized. The final plan is expected to be released next month.

The draft plan models what might happen based on the last century’s three pandemics.

In a best-case scenario, about 200,000 people might die. But if the next pandemic resembles the 1918 Spanish flu, as many as 1.9 million could die, Mr. Osterholm said.

“You plan for the worst-case scenario,” he said. “If it’s less than that, thank God.”

The government has on hand enough of the anti-flu drug Tamiflu to treat 4.3 million people. Manufacturing of $100 million worth of a bird-flu vaccine has begun.

The draft makes it clear that tens of millions more doses of each would be needed. That is far more than the world has the capacity to manufacture quickly.

Federal health officials for several weeks have been role-playing what would happen if a super-flu struck now — not next year, after more medicines and vaccines have been stockpiled.

The strategy, Mr. Osterholm said, is, “Don’t emphasize what you can buy, emphasize what you can get your hands on.”

The draft, written by health officials, includes 10 supplements that suggest ways for local and state governments to prepare, such as drafting documents that would justify quarantine. It does not address military or other government departmental responses, the Times reported.

The paper quoted an unnamed health official who provided a copy of the plan as saying its true shortcoming was “that it doesn’t say who’s in charge.”

Democrats have criticized the administration for not having a plan. Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, said yesterday that time for action was short.

“Having a plan on paper does nothing to protect us,” Mr. Harkin said.

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