President George W. Bush unveiled a $7.1 billion plan last week designed to respond to the threat of an avian influenza pandemic.
Governments around the world are scrambling to develop infection prevention and treatment plans in anticipation of what the U.N.’s World Health Organization has warned could become a global pandemic with the potential to kill millions.
The danger lies, according to scientists, with the possible mutation of the H5N1 avian influenza-A strain into a virus that can be transmitted from human to human.
The first recorded cases of humans contracting the avian flu emerged in Hong Kong in 1997, causing severe respiratory illness in 18 people and killing six, according to a report by the Center for Disease Control.
Since 2003, approximately 62 people have died from avian influenza, and 122 people have been infected after coming into contact with avian flu-infected birds, according to recent CDC reports.
Currently awaiting approval from Congress, Bush’s proposal includes $2.5 billion for the purchase of the influenza vaccines and the stockpile of antiviral medication like Tamiflu, $2.8 billion to develop a more reliable system for producing flu shots and additional millions for research, the development of state response strategies and bird testing.
An additional $251 million was proposed in foreign aid to help countries at outbreak sites build early warning systems and increase the capacity to produce their own vaccines and antivirals.
The primary antiviral drug the United States is attempting to stockpile is in short supply, according to representatives of the Roche company, the current sole supplier of Tamiflu. Roche, a Swiss company, recently announced that it would license production of the drug to private companies and public entities in an effort to prevent the spread of pandemic.
Some critics of Bush’s proposal, including students like Mills senior and Hong Kong native Agnes Lee, have argued that the U.S. government should prioritize spending on the treatment and prevention of outbreak where it is most likely to occur, rather than using the bulk of spending to develop a national stockpile.
“I think it’s better to put some measures on the particular areas where the bird flu is fought,” said Lee. “It’s better not to wait until a pandemic has hit.”
Professor of Economics Eirik Evenhouse synthesized the arguments of those who object to the prioritization of a national stockpile of vaccines.
“One thing that’s clear is that our country’s public health system is intimately connected with others. Migrating geese don’t respect borders,” said Evenhouse. In this sense, he said, “its not effective just to stockpile drugs here.”
“Complicating this decision are political questions,” said Associate Professor of Public Policy Carol Chetkovich. “If it is U.S. resources coming from our taxes,” she said, the question becomes, “do we feel more responsibility to our own people?” Chetkovich said that this also raised ethical questions.
Another question raised by public policy professors is whether or not it will be feasible for Bush’s proposal to be properly executed.
“The public health infrastructure has really been hurt in this country,” said Chetkovich. “Getting vaccines to those who need them presupposes that the infrastructure is in place.”
Public policy professor Emery Roe said that one of the most looming questions is simply “Where is this money going to come from?” According to Roe, Bush is insisting that these funds, along with those for Katrina relief, be taken from cuts elsewhere in the budget.
“What programs is he going to cut to fund the avian flu response initiative? Here again, the cuts may be made on the backs of poor people and those who can least afford them,” said Roe.
According to WHO reports, approximately 60 percent of countries have developed a pandemic preparedness plan.