Officials: Government Well-Prepared for Swine Flu, but Worst Is Yet to Come
By Ben Pershing
A panel of experts reassured senators today that the government was well-prepared to cope with the widening swine flu outbreak, even as they warned that the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.
At a hastily arranged hearing of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that handles health issues, a quartet of government officials on the front lines of the swine flu battle outlined all that they are doing to contain the crisis, from beginning work on a vaccine to boosting surveillance at the border. But the fight is far from over, they said.
"I do expect more cases, and I expect more states to be affected," said Anne Schuchat, the interim deputy director for science and public health program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"I think we can't assume we'll have as mild illness as we've seen at the beginning of the cases we've detected. I think we really need to be prepared for a worsening of the situation. And it's also important that people realize it's more of a marathon than a sprint here."
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the subcommittee chairman, said he called the hearing because "there's a lot of anxiety, understandably so," among the general public, and he wanted to get out as much information as possible. Harkin and his colleagues wanted to know whether the federal agencies in charge of the flu response have all the funding that they need going forward, and the chairman emphasized that his committee has allocated billions of dollars over the years to prepare for just such an event.
"The investments we have made into preparedness are making a difference every day," Schuchat agreed.
In the middle of the hearing, Harkin got word that President Obama had officially asked Congress to include $1.5 billion to combat the swine flu in the upcoming supplemental spending bill, most of which will be devoted to funding for Iraq and Afghanistan. The measure is expected to be taken up by both chambers early next month.
Even before receiving word of Obama's funding request, Harkin said he would "push very hard" to include flu preparedness money in the supplemental measure. Harkin made a point of saying he had helped to insert $870 million into the economic stimulus package for pandemic flu preparedness, money that -- as has been much discussed this week -- was eventually cut from the bill before passage. "I was disappointed that the money was taken out of the recovery package," Harkin said.
Hailing from a state where pig farms are plentiful, Harkin also wanted the hearing to amplify the message that the swine flu outbreak should not make Americans afraid of what they eat. He invited John Clifford, a top official at the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, for that express purpose.
"This is not a food-safety issue. Pork is safe to eat," Clifford said, lamenting that the name of the virus might have mistakenly given people the opposite impression.
Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) expressed concerns about anti-flu efforts in her own state, where several cases have been confirmed. Hutchison pressed Schuchat on whether increased steps should be put in place to screen people, such as taking their temperature, before they cross the border or board flights from Mexico into the U.S.
Schuchat said repeatedly that additional medical screening wouldn't be effective, and she got agreement from Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He pointed out that it can take from 24 hours to five days for swine flu symptoms to appear in someone who has been exposed to the virus, so taking people's temperature at the border would likely be an ineffective and inefficient use of resources.
Fauci said samples of the flu virus had already been sent to some private companies so they could begin initial work on developing a vaccine, but the process will take time.
"Over a period of anywhere from four to six months or so, you may be able to start getting off the assembly a number of doses, so that we might have it ready for people several months from now," Fauci said. Having a vaccine ready will be particularly important next winter, when the regular flu season comes and cases of swine flu might spike.
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