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U.S. Criticized Over Bird Flu Plans

Stockpiles, Vaccine Plans Moving Too Slowly, Critics Charge
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WebMD Health News

May 26, 2005 -- U.S. efforts to counter a possible influenza pandemic, including an outbreak of bird flu, are moving slowly and may be inadequate in an emergency, several witnesses told lawmakers Thursday.

Experts say the Bush administration has lagged in finalizing plans for responding to a widespread flu outbreak, which scientists warn could potentially cause widespread fatalities and economic disruptions. They also call moves to stockpile antiviral drugs capable of muting the severity of bird flu inadequate.

Government officials defended their planning in congressional hearings, saying that they plan on completing a national plan by the end of the summer.

Bird flu has infected millions of poultry livestock and other birds in Southeast Asia and has sickened 97 humans this year as of May 19, according to the World Health Organization. Fifty-three people have died of the disease.

Humans Lack Bird Flu Immunity

The disease is especially alarming to health officials because humans lack immunity to the bird flu virus, known as H5N1, and no effective vaccine is ready for mass use. That raises the prospect of a pandemic of a flu strain to which virtually none of the human population is protected.

Health officials have seen only one case where evidence points to human-to-human spread of bird flu, says CDC director Julie M. Gerberding, MD. But the potential for its spread among humans has sent health authorities in several countries scrambling to secure supplies of drugs able to treat it.

But a WHO report earlier this month suggested that the bird flu virus may be changingbird flu virus may be changing in ways to make it increasingly better at person-to-person spread.

Governments in the U.K. and France have ordered enough doses of the flu drug Tamiflu to treat 25% of their populations in the event of an outbreak. U.S. authorities have stockpiled 2.3 million doses, enough to treat less than 1% of the population.

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