KENNEDY STATEMENT ON AVIAN FLU LEGISLATION (As prepared for delivery)
I commend Senator Reid for offering this amendment to deal with avian flu, and I strongly support it.
The last thing the country needs now is a major health crisis, but the warning signs are there, and we need to be prepared. The avian flu virus now spreading in Southeast Asia is highly lethal. Unlike typical flu, it kills half the people infected. In the past week, Indonesia has confirmed that at least ten adults and children have died from the virus.
In this era of globalization, infectious diseases in any part of the world can quickly spread across geographical borders. What’s plaguing Southeast Asia today, could easily threaten the lives of Americans tomorrow, and we are far from well-prepared. In fact, many experts feel we’re no better prepared for avian flu than we were for Hurricane Katrina. With no formal response plan, weak public health infrastructure, limited hospital capacity and low supplies of vaccine and antiviral drugs, the health of the nation is obviously at risk.
Experts estimate that if the current strain of avian flu mutates to a form that can more easily spread from human to human, millions of people will be sick and millions more will die because we were caught unprepared to protect them.
We should have had a national flu plan in place years ago. Not only would it help us now with avian flu, but it would have helped us efficiently distribute vaccine during the shortage last year and get drugs to those in need after the recent hurricanes.
Avian flu originated in birds, but has infected humans again and again in recent years, and it’s only a question of time before a highly contagious version strikes us. It is time for Congress and the Administration to apply the lessons of Katrina to biological threats too.
We particularly need to strengthen our avian flu surveillance capability. The majority of the outbreaks have occurred in Southeast Asia; but we have only a limited ability to track the virus there. We need stronger cooperation with other governments, and with the World Health Organization, to develop a coordinated and effective surveillance strategy.
We also need to address the links between human health and veterinary health. Here, the Department of Agriculture should have a vital role in assessing these problems and developing solutions.
If there is an avian flu outbreak, we will need an ample supply of vaccine and Tamiflu, the only antiviral drug regarded as effective. Japan has enough Tamiflu to treat 50% of its population and Western Europe has enough to treat 25%. But the Department of Health and Human Serviceshas stockpiled only enough medication to treat 2% of the population.
In last year’s flu vaccine shortage, public health officials were unable to distribute life-saving vaccine efficiently to the people most at risk of dying from the virus. We couldn’t even get diabetes medication to the people of the Gulf Coast after the hurricanes. We don’t know when an avian flu pandemic may hit, but now is the time to prepare for this growing threat, not to ignore it.
There are many uncertainties with flu, but one of the certainties is that our public health infrastructure needs help now. Yet, year after year, we reduce funds for state and local preparedness and diminish our ability to respond.
Again, I commend Senator Reid for taking this action to prepare the nation for the impending threat of avian flu, and I urge my colleagues to pass this amendment for $3.9 billion and put us on the right track before we’re caught unprepared again.