Webcast Recap

As China enacts a plan to vaccinate billions of chickens for avian flu, "here in the U.S., we are woefully unprepared to vaccinate human beings," said Senator Harkin. "We have enough doses of antiviral medication for less than two percent of our population," though the World Health Organization recommends having enough for 25 percent, as France and Britain do.

Harkin noted the day of his talk was also the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Like that fateful day in 1941, avian flu presents a threat to our national security and our economy, he said. But unlike Pearl Harbor, he said, an avian flu outbreak would not be a sneak attack.

Harkin expressed deep concern over the lack of government attention to the impending pandemic and the lack of state of local preparedness. He said agencies and hospitals are under-funded, understaffed, and ill-equipped to cope with such a pandemic—be it bioterrorism or avian flu. "We need to hire more public health officials: epidemiologists, physicians, laboratory technicians, and others," Harkin said. In addition, "we need to dramatically increase the surge capacity of hospitals all across the country," particularly the emergency room, where 80 percent of patients go first. In the event of an outbreak, he said, patients would need ventilators to help them breathe, but only 105,000 ventilators exist in the United States today, and 75 percent of them already are in use.

Tracing his efforts throughout the year to encourage adoption of an avian flu strategy and to secure government funding, Harkin said Congress overwhelmingly passed the avian flu plan, funded at $8 billion, that he attached to the Labor-Health & Human Services appropriations bill in November. But then, the conservatives in the House removed avian flu funding from that bill, citing no compelling need. "Funding for the Iraq war is not offset…But avian flu—which could kill upwards of a half million Americans—is not an emergency, in the eyes of the House conservative," Harkin said. "The $8 billion I have proposed is less than we spend in two months in Iraq."

In the end, the President requested $7.1 billion for avian flu funding, (note: later in December Congress approved $3.8 billion of that request so far), which Harkin alleges fails to address state and local needs. The plan outlines four basic goals: 1. Create an emergency tripwire: Bolstering international surveillance of outbreaks overseas facilitates early detection of the virus and its path. 2. Improve vaccine-production infrastructure in the United States: Currently, only one plant produces flu vaccine in this country. 3. Stockpile vaccines and anti-viral medications. 4. Strengthen state and local public health infrastructure so that medicines and care can be delivered in an emergency.

Harkin said this pandemic would require a federal response, disagreeing with the President's proposal for each state to build and pay for its own stockpile of antiviral medicines. "Some states can't afford it," he said. "Does that mean that neighboring states can't get help if they have an outbreak first? We should have a national stockpile and a national quick-response plan that will deliver the drugs to wherever an outbreak occurs." And in addition to vaccines and antiviral drugs, Harkin said the federal government will also need to provide thousands of extra health care professionals and mobile hospitals.

"In World War II, we built the Pentagon in six months," Harkin said. "To beat an avian flu pandemic, we need that same sense of crisis and can-do commitment. And we need to get moving now."