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U.S. lawmakers call for creation of 'bird flu czar'

Democrats in Congress on Wednesday stepped up their criticism of the Bush administration’s preparation for a possible influenza pandemic and called for the creation of a White House czar to oversee the nation’s readiness and response.
/ Source: Reuters

Democrats in Congress on Wednesday stepped up their criticism of the Bush administration’s preparation for a possible influenza pandemic and called for the creation of a White House czar to oversee the nation’s readiness and response.

“The administration has failed to prepare adequately for a flu pandemic,” Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said. “The danger of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans was ignored until it was too late. We can’t make the same mistake with pandemic flu.”

Kennedy and other Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, introduced legislation to establish a White House “director of pandemic preparedness and response.”

Some international organizations also have called on the United States and other countries to step up their investment in the fight against the disease.

Bush administration officials were not immediately available for comment.

Bird flu conference
The State Department said health experts and other officials from around the world would begin meeting in Washington on Thursday to discuss a coordinated response to the bird flu epidemic.

Avian flu has spread through flocks of poultry mainly in Asia, raising scientists’ fears that the often fatal illness could mutate and become easily transmissible among humans. It would have the potential to kill millions.

President Bush on Tuesday raised the possibility of using the military to enforce quarantines if there is such an outbreak and his administration is preparing a package of legislative ideas for combating the virus, according to Republican aides in Congress. No details were available.

Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, said to prevent an avian flu outbreak, “We need a significant investment in federal money and significant changes in the law so that vaccine producers will actually make the vaccine.”

Ueland would not comment on whether such funds might be included in the next batch of emergency hurricane aid Congress is expected to consider in the next few weeks.

Democrats complained the administration has been slow to finalize a plan for responding to a flu pandemic.

“I wrote to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson in January 2004, urging him to release a plan.  A year and a half later, there is still no final plan,” Kennedy said.

The Democrats’ legislation calls for stockpiling enough antiviral drugs to cover half of the U.S. population of about 296 million in the event of an avian flu outbreak in humans.

At the moment the United States has only enough anti-viral drugs to cover less than one percent of the population, according to some estimates.

Last week, Democrats won Senate approval of nearly $4 billion for a range of steps to fight an outbreak of avian flu, but the bill’s fate, along with the legislation introduced on Wednesday, was uncertain.