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Warnings Grow Dire on Bird Flu Threat

U.S. Officials and Experts Complain of Catastrophic Danger

What to Do?

Asked at a Thursday forum hosted by the Council of Foreign Relations what can be done to immediately prepare for a bird flu outbreak, Osterholm says there's probably little we can do at this point.

What can the U.S. do to prevent the continued spread of flu from billions of Asian chickens and ducks? "The bottom line message is: almost nothing," says Osterholm, who is also a professor at the University of Minnesota.

World Community Unprepared

Others offer equally stark warnings that the U.S. has not engaged foreign governments over how nations will react in the event of a global pandemic and economic standstill. Poor and middle-income governments have already begun to complain that they are being left out as industrialized countries make deals to buy stockpiles of antiflu medications, says Laurie Garrett, the council's senior fellow for global health and a former journalist.

"We have no agreed-upon mechanisms of any kind," Garrett says. "This could turn into a big, bloody mess."

Bush administration officials told lawmakers two weeks ago that they are hard at work completing a national flu response plan governing issues such as quarantines, hospital capacity, and distribution of emergency pharmaceuticals.

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged in an interview that officials' public statements about bird flu have become unusually stark. He attributes the warnings to concerns over bird flu's apparent harm and to the lack of human immunity.

Officials are also trying to galvanize support for new laws that would give pharmaceutical companies incentive to produce large amounts of vaccine against bird flu and other more common types of flu. "That's the thing that we keep trying to drill at," he says.

Fauci says that "the administration is very much up there" in its level of activity in flu planning.

Meanwhile, other experts remain largely unconvinced.

Steven Hoffman, an audience member at the Council forum, rose to say that the experts' stark warnings had convinced him "to get in my car and move to Montana or something."

"It won't help," Garrett told him.

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