Fear of flu outbreak frightens Washington

Health officials have warned for years that a virulent bird flu could kill millions of people, but few in Washington have seem to be alarmed.

After a closed-door briefing last week, however, fear of an outbreak swept official Washington, which was still reeling from the poor response to Hurricane Katrina.

The day after the briefing, led by Michael O. Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services, and other senior government health officials, the Senate squeezed $3.9 billion for flu preparations into a Pentagon appropriations bill.

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats plan to introduce another bill calling for the creation of a flu pandemic coordinator within the White House and a federal buy-back program for unused flu vaccines, among other measures, according to a draft of the bill.

Thirty-two Democratic senators sent a letter to President Bush on Tuesday expressing "grave concern that the nation is dangerously unprepared for the serious threat of avian influenza."

Bush spent a considerable part of his news conference Tuesday talking about the risks of an outbreak and the measures the administration is considering to combat one, including whether to use the military to enforce quarantines.

Since 1997, avian flu strains seem to have infected thousands of birds in 11 countries. But so far, nearly all of the people infected with the disease - more than 100, including some 60 who died - got the sickness directly from birds. There has been very little transmission between people, a requirement for an epidemic.

The government has purchased "millions of courses" of treatment, said Christina Pearson, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department, and it has a goal of having on hand 20 million. A course includes enough doses for a full treatment, The New York Times reports.

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