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White House Unveils Flu Pandemic Plan

Local Communities and Individuals Bear Responsibility
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 3, 2006 - The White House released a national readiness plan for pandemic influenza Wednesday, telling local and state authorities that they'll bear the brunt of responsibility for protecting citizens in the event of an outbreak.

The 227-page plan lays out more than 300 recommendations for local authorities, businesses, churches, schools, and individuals designed to lessen the impact of a widespread flu outbreak. It urges organizations and families to begin now in planning for a possible flu outbreak.

Government officials continue to stress that a pandemic -- whether it is caused by the H5N1 bird flu virus or another pathogen -- is unlikely, though entirely possible. Three major pandemics crossed the world in the 20th century, including the Spanish flu, which killed an estimated 25 million people worldwide.

Experts say that unlike a terrorist attack or a hurricane, a pandemic would likely affect hundreds if not thousands of communities simultaneously, placing many people out of reach of federal responders. White House officials said Wednesday that their plan relies on local governments, businesses, and individuals to shoulder the bulk of preparations.

"While the federal government has many responsibilities here, we cannot forget that a pandemic occurs because of the spread of the virus from one person to another. This means that individual actions are perhaps the most important element of our preparedness and response activities," White House homeland security advisor Fran Townsend told reporters in a briefing.

Congress has already agreed to spend $3.8 billion of $7.1 billion requested last year by the White House for the plan. An additional $2.3 billion is expected to be approved as part of a military spending bill tomorrow.

Individual Responsibility

Townsend said a flu outbreak would spur federal authorities to take the lead in such areas as limiting port traffic, monitoring for infected international travelers, and communicating with the public about risks.

Federal officials would also be in charge of distributing federal stockpiles of vaccines and antiviral drugs, though Townsend said Wednesday that such plans are not yet complete.

But the report also contains dozens of recommendations for businesses and individuals, some new and some repeats of previous Bush administration recommendations. In all, the plan urges people to prepare for large-scale disruptions to daily life.

"We depend on everyone outside of the government to take this as seriously as we do," Townsend said.

Individual households should consider building up stockpiles of water and nonperishable foods that are easy to cook, the plan says. People should secure supplies of medications or other needed personal items in case transportation or distribution systems temporarily break down.

The White House also urged employers to establish policies for flexible work schedules, including telecommuting and skeleton crews. Other parts of the plan urge "social distancing" in workplaces and schools to minimize chances for the flu virus to spread from person to person.

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