Tom Harkin - U.S. Seante

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Washington, D.C. – Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), top Democrat on the subcommittee that funds health care initiatives, today announced a proposal to provide a substantial boost in resources to prepare for a potential outbreak of the avian flu. Harkin and Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will offer the amendment to the Defense Appropriations measure expected to be considered by the Senate later today.

“If we have learned anything from the recent disasters on the Gulf Coast, it is that we must confidently prepare for disasters before they strike so that we are not left picking up the pieces,” said Harkin. “The possibility of an avian flu pandemic is very real. It would be worse than SARS, worse than anything else we have seen. I am gravely concerned that this country is woefully unprepared and that time is running out.”

Avian flu, also known as the bird flu, is a virus that to date has only been passed from birds to humans. However, experts predict that it is only a matter of time before the virus mutates and will be able to easily spread between humans creating a widespread public health crisis. In a matter of weeks, an outbreak in China, Vietnam or Cambodia could trigger a world-wide outbreak facilitated by international travel and globalization. Harkin and Reid’s amendment called for a greater investment in our preparedness efforts including increased resources for public health infrastructure, global surveillance and detection, vaccines, and anti-viral stockpiles.

Specifically, the amendment would provide resources to:

    -H Double global surveillance of the avian flu through the Centers for Disease Control to identify and contain the avian flu virus around the world as soon as possible.

    – Restore President Bush’s budget cuts to local and state public health departments and emergency preparedness activities to help communities recognize, treat, and quarantine the avian flu virus if it reaches our shores. The President’s budget cut $122 million from the grants to state and local public health departments for emergency preparedness activities, grants that were first funded by Harkin as Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks.

    – Increase stockpiles of Tamiflu, the one known antiviral drug to be effective against the current strains of the avian flu. The World Health Organization has recommended that each country stockpile enough Tamiflu for 40 percent of their population. Though other countries have heeded this warning, the United States currently has only two million doses on hand – enough for one percent of the population. The additional resources would steadily add to the national stockpile, with a goal of accumulating enough Tamiflu to serve 50 percent of the population.

    – Build up and strengthen our vaccine infrastructure. The United States currently does not have the capacity to create enough vaccines here at home. In the event of a pandemic, the US would have to rely on imported vaccines which countries may be unwilling to export.

    – Provide new resources for outreach and education efforts to both health care providers and the public.

“This is one of the biggest threats we face today,” said Harkin. “A flu pandemic is not a matter of if – but when. We must heed these warning signs, and take the time to invest in our public infrastructure. Instead of always looking into the read-view mirror, we must do all we can to prevent a disaster, like avian flu, before it happens.”

Influenza viruses cause 20,000 to 40,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Many of these could be prevented with increased use of the influenza vaccine. Experts estimate that 90,000 to 300,000 Americans and up to 50 million people worldwide could die if left unprotected during an influenza pandemic.

As a leader in Congress on public health issues, Harkin has pushed aggressively to strengthen the federal government’s focus on wellness and disease prevention. Harkin significantly increased funding for the Centers for Disease Control, bolstered its prevention programs, and authored legislation changing the agency’s name to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Along with Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), he doubled funding for the National Institutes of Health over a five year period.

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