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Bird Flu Pandemic: Economic Disaster?

Government Report Warns of $675 Billion Loss for U.S. Economy in Worst-Case Scenario
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 8, 2005 -- The full brunt of a bird flu pandemic could cost the U.S. economy as much as $675 billion in just a few weeks, a congressional report concluded Thursday.

The report warns that pandemic flu could cause major disruptions as millions of people either stay home from work because they are ill or because they fear venturing out in public. Such lost productivity could paralyze businesses as workers stay home for up to three weeks.

The report -- generated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) -- also warns of economic losses for restaurants, entertainment venues, and hotels; retail sales could drop by one-quarter.

Debate on Preparedness

The report comes as Congress debates how to fund a bird flu preparedness plan put forward by President Bush in November. The White House asked for $7.1 billion to fund the plan, which funds stockpiles of vaccines and antiviral drugs as well as investments to help vaccine makers develop more efficient manufacturing techniques.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told reporters Thursday that he expects lawmakers to reach an agreement on the funding "in the next four or five days."

The report's dire economic predictions are based on a worst-case scenario in which bird flu infects 90 million Americans and kills 2 million within several weeks. In all, it says that a sudden pandemic could cost the country 5% of its gross domestic product.

"These numbers are huge," said Frist.

"The CBO scenarios suggest that fear, misunderstanding, and a lack of confidence or trust in authority may have almost as much impact on the economy as the direct toll of the virus in terms of sickness and death," he said.

Pandemic's Potential Impact

A recent CDC estimate predicted that between 314,000 and 734,000 Americans could be hospitalized in a pandemic and that up to 42 million would need outpatient care.

Bird flu has sickened 135 people and killed 69 since late 2003, according to a World Health Organization update published Wednesday. The deaths have been confined to five Asian countries: Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

All of the documented deaths are in people who contracted the bird flu virus, known as H5N1, from animals. The virus has not yet gained the ability to efficiently spread from human to human, a necessary final ingredient to sparking a potential pandemic.

Most experts do not expect the virus to maintain such a high fatality rate if it mutates genetically to transfer between humans. Still, even a 2.5% fatality rate could make it even more devastating than the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which killed half a million Americans and an estimated 40 to 50 million people worldwide.

Frist backed the Bush administration plan Thursday, calling it a good "first step" to preparing the country for a possible pandemic. Preparations are expected to take years, however, as vaccine makers still do not have the capacity or technology to rapidly produce the 300 million doses that would be needed to inoculate all Americans.

The plan also relies heavily on cities and states to develop detailed pandemic-response plans and to pay part of the cost of stockpiling antiviral drugs like Tamiflu. State officials have complained that they cannot afford preparations and that $100 million set aside in the plan for local readiness is not enough.

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