Tom Harkin - U.S. Seante

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“Mr. Chairman, thank you for calling this hearing this morning. I am concerned that the United States is unprepared for an outbreak – and a subsequent pandemic – of avian flu. We’ve had two major disasters in the last four years – 9/11 and Katrina – and the federal government was totally unprepared for both despite warnings. Similarly, we have been warned in no uncertain terms about avian flu. This time, however, we must be prepared.

“As you know, avian flu — or H5N1 — has only passed from bird species to humans. But experts tell us it is only a matter of time before the virus mutates and human-to-human transmission becomes widespread. An outbreak in China, Vietnam or Cambodia could trigger – within a couple weeks’ time — a world-wide outbreak facilitated by air travel and the mass movement of people across borders. Indeed, many experts say that it is not a matter of if – but when.

“Senator Specter and I worked together late last year to make sure that Congress provided funds to address a possible pandemic flu epidemic. We included almost $8 billion in the FY 2006 LHHS bill to address this possible pandemic. Those funds were intended to be used to upgrade state and local capacity, stockpile vaccines and antivirals, increase global surveillance activities, and to expand the domestic production of flu vaccine. Unfortunately, in the end, Congress only provided a little less than $4 billion for pandemic flu preparedness – less than half of what was included in the Senate LHHS bill and more than $3 billon less than requested by the President. One of our witnesses today has said in his written testimony that ‘this shortfall did not send a positive message to manufacturers about the the certainty and stability of the governments efforts to fully address a public health threat of this magnitude.’  

“I was also very disappointed that, while the final bill included immunity protections for vaccine manufacturers, it included no funds to protect those who receive the vaccine and now have no recourse against the manufacturer. Let me say that I favor limited liability protections for manufacturers of vaccines and other countermeasures related to avian flu, as long as compensation is also available to any individuals who suffer as result of their use. What is most disturbing is that this provision was added in the middle of the night after the conference report was signed. The Republican leadership abused their power and added a never-before-seen immunity protection provision more than six hours after the conference was closed.

“On a more positive note, we were able to designate $350 million of the funds appropriated to address pandemic flu for upgrading state and local response capacity to a pandemic. The President had only requested $100 million. State and local public health agencies will be on the front lines of both surveillance and disease prevention should an outbreak occur. Mr. Chairman, I am glad to see that you have asked a number of state and local public health

directors to today’s hearings. In particular, I am pleased to see that Dr. Mary Hansen, Director of the Iowa Department of Public Health will be testifying before the Subcommittee this morning. In fact, I will be joining Dr. Hansen and Secretary Leavitt at the flu summit in Des Moines this Friday.

“I am also pleased to see Dr. Julie Gerberding this morning. The Centers for Disease Control is doing a fine job working in cooperation with the World Health Organization and governments in affected regions to detect the disease and help to stop its spread. Surveillance can alert us to an outbreak, and governments can then take measures to isolate the disease so that widespread infection does not occur.

“So, again, thank you, Mr. Chairman, for calling this hearing and I look forward to hearing the testimony.”

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