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Government Steps Up Fight Against Flu

CDC Expands Quarantine Capabilities
WebMD Health News

April 6, 2005 -- Federal health officials say they are stepping up efforts to protect the nation against influenza, amid concerns that bird flu could enter the U.S. from Asia and cause a pandemic.

CDC officials told lawmakers Wednesday that they are moving to more than double the number of quarantine stations used to evaluate and detain travelers from overseas who enter the country ill with potentially dangerous contagious illnesses.

The agency currently operates 11 of the stations near major ports of entry but expects to have 18 operational by the end of 2005 and eventually expand the number to 25, they said.

Officials said the expansion is part of an effort to increase the government's ability to respond to a potential influenza pandemic. Concerns over the potential impact of the flu were heightened this winter amid a widespread shortage of vaccines that left the U.S. with just over half of its expected supply.

Unease has also increased among health officials as bird flu continues to spread among millions of chickens and ducks in Southeast Asia. Wild birds worldwide carry the bird flu virus in their intestines but usually do not get sick from them. However, bird flu is very contagious among birds and can make some domesticated birds, including chickens, ducks, and turkeys, very sick and kill them.

According to the CDC, the bird flu virus does not usually infect humans, but some cases of human infection with bird flu viruses have occurred since 1997. According to the World Health Organization, a bird flu virus known as H5N1 has infected 79 persons and killed 49 in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam since January 2004.

Last week, President Bush issued an executive order for the first time adding influenza to the list of diseases for which the government is empowered to detain people in quarantines. A Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson said at the time that the order was part of the government's preparation strategy for bird flu.

Influenza pandemics occur periodically, sometimes with devastating consequences. A pandemic of the Spanish Flu in 1918 killed an estimated 20 million people worldwide.

"People who are expert in influenza do not think it's a question of 'if', they think it's a question of 'when,'" Anne Schuchat, MD, acting director of the CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases, told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The H5N1 virus has shown only limited capacity to spread from birds to humans or between humans, an ability that would be key to widespread transmission among humans. But the strain is of particular concern because the U.S. population has essentially no immunity against this virus.

Schuchat said that Bush's executive order is "not an order that we expect to need to use." But, she added, "our area of greatest concern right now is the threat of pandemic influenza."

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