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Americas Preparations For Flu Outbreak Still Incomplete

More than a year after President Bush unveiled a plan for coping with a pandemic flu outbreak, the federal government still has limited capacity to detect a disease outbreak and track its progress across the country.

The government has also decided that it will not close the borders if a pandemic flu outbreak occurs somewhere in the world. Says Dr. Rajeev Venkayya, special assistant to the president for biodefense:The reality is that there are tremendous challenges to sealing our borders to begin with. Secondly, we believe that if a pandemic virus emerges anywhere in the globe, it is inevitable that it will arrive here in the U.S. irrespective of the actions we take at the borders. The government will try to limit the number of arriving people who might be infected with the virus and detain those suspected of harboring the virus, Dr. Venkayya said. But at the same time, it will try to allow the flow of goods and people across the border to continue.

In the coming weeks, officials will release the governments priority list detailing who will get the first batches of flu vaccines in the event of an outbreak. Plans to coordinate with state and local governments about when to close schools are also still in the works. These updates were delivered recently in a White House briefing on the governments progress in preparing the nation for an outbreak of a deadly infectious disease. Top officials emphasized that significant planning and investment decisions had already been made, including a $1 billion investment in finding new ways to manufacture flu vaccines. But, as Dr. Venkayya warns, there is much work that remains to be done.

The Department of Health and Human Services also announced that it had released $897 million to states for emergency preparedness efforts. The money includes $175 million for pandemic flu preparedness. A nationwide surveillance system to track the progress of an outbreak as it moves around the world an d across the country still needs considerable work, officials said. Just to be brutally honest, we have a lot of trouble determining when we have an outbreak of disease in a community here in the U.S., Dr. Venkayya said. We need to have uniform biosurveillance capability to prepare not only for a pandemic, but any outbreak of infectious disease.

Accordingly, the nation also has little extra capacity in its hospitals and other health care facilities to deal with a huge surge in need that would accompany a mass disease outbreak. And the government has little ability to ensure that during an outbreak, when many workers would stay home, limited Internet capacity would go to essential work and not to children playing video games, officials said.

Eighty-six percent of the tasks that were to be completed this year under the presidents flu plan have been finished, officials said. The remaining 14 percent of those should be done by the end of the year, Dr. Venkayya said. A significant remaining challenge, officials said, is that the country has grown tired of pandemic flu warnings. They emphasized that the planning would help prepare for any disease outbreak, whether from natural causes or a terrorist attack.

Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for Americas Health, a nonprofit organization dedicated to disease prevention, praised the administrations flu preparations. This report demonstrates that the federal government has made major strides in preparedness for a pandemic, Mr. Levi said. But as the administration also recognizes, there is still a long way to go before all levels of government and all sectors of society are fully prepared.


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