Saturday, July 22, 2006

Gaps in bird flu plan leave US vulnerable-senators

Gaps in bird flu plan leave US vulnerable-senators

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Agriculture Department's failure to develop a "comprehensive" program to monitor for bird flu could leave the country unprepared if an outbreak happens, a bipartisan group of senators said on Friday.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, six lawmakers said some states were not as prepared as they should be for the disease.

To better protect public health, they said, the department should provide states with a protocol for developing avian influenza response plans.

The letter also expressed concern that the U.S. Agriculture Department has not done enough to prepare for an outbreak in multiple states or raise awareness among backyard poultry owners for symptoms of the virus.

"We need leadership from USDA in preparing for the arrival of avian flu," said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"USDA's failure to develop a comprehensive monitoring program leaves us in the dark about areas of the country where better surveillance is needed. And USDA's inadequate assistance and cooperation with states and industry leaves our nation unnecessarily vulnerable," he said.

The letter also was signed by Democratic Sens. Harry Reid, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer and Republican Charles Grassley.

Last month, USDA's inspector general said the United States did not have adequate measures in place to survey and monitor for avian influenza, including the deadly H5N1 strain.

The inspector general's audit began before USDA received $91 million in supplemental funding from Congress in December. Much of that money went toward boosting its bird flu surveillance program.

USDA and the inspector general later agreed on recommendations made in the report.

"We have been working expeditiously to ensure that our plans for using these funds address the most critical aspects of (avian influenza) surveillance and emergency preparedness and response," Ed Loyd, USDA spokesman, said in a statement.

The latest bird flu strain is known to have killed more than 130 people and forced hundreds of millions of birds worldwide to be destroyed.

H5N1 has remained largely an infection of birds as it has spread through Asia, Europe and Africa. This strain has not been found in the United States so far.

Some experts believe the H5N1 virus could mutate so that it could spread easily from person to person, potentially killing millions of people.