December 8, 2005

Reports detail bird flu effects on U.S

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A pandemic of bird flu could cause a
serious recession of the U.S. economy, with immediate costs of
between $500 billion and $675 billion, according to two
estimates released on Thursday.

Both assume the H5N1 avian influenza now destroying flocks
of poultry across Asia and parts of Europe makes the jump into
humans and causes serious disease.

So far, H5N1 has killed 69 people and infected 135, but
world health experts say it is very close to mutating into a
form that easily passes among people.

If it does, it would likely closely resemble the 1918
pandemic strain of flu that killed anywhere between 20 million
and 100 million people during World War I, both reports say.
This means 30 percent of the population would be infected and
more than 2 percent would die, the report from the
Congressional Budget Office presumes.

"Further, CBO assumed that those who survived would miss
three weeks of work, either because they were sick, because
they feared the risk of infection at work, or because they
needed to care of family or friends," the report reads.

"In addition to workers' absences, many businesses (such as
restaurants and movie theaters) would probably suffer a falloff
in demand because people would be afraid to patronize them or
because the authorities would close them."

Doctor's offices and hospitals would be overcrowded, the
CBO predicts.

"Currently, the United States has approximately 970,000
staffed hospital beds and 100,000 ventilators, with
three-quarters of them in use on any given day. As a result,
shortages could occur in critical areas such as ventilators,
critical care beds, and drugs to treat secondary infections,"
the report reads.


Hospitals would have difficulty controlling infection and
might become sources for spreading the illness, the CBO said --
a fear echoed by another group, the National Center for Policy
Analysis .

A second report from New Jersey based WBB Securities LLC
estimated 35 percent of the population would become ill and 5
percent would die.

It predicts a one-year economic loss of $488 billion and a
permanent economic loss of $1.4 trillion to the U.S. economy.

"If the influenza affected humans at the same level of
virulence as the current H5N1 strain, practically all patients
would require hospitalization, which would result in a shortage
of some 6.5 million hospital beds per day during the pandemic,"
the WBB report reads.

"Police, fire, sanitation and other critical service
providers will be strained with short staff and overtime work,
which will impact municipal and state budgets," it adds.

"There may even be civil disturbances caused by people who
either believe they can take advantage of the situation or who
feel they have little chance of survival so they may as well
enjoy themselves while they can."

The reports support other predictions that have been made
about the potential effect on the U.S. economy. The World Bank
has predicted a pandemic could cost the global economy $800
billion a year.

U.S. President George W. Bush released a $7.1 billion bird
flu plan in November but Congress has yet to fund it. Senate
Majority Leader Bill Frist said he hopes for legislation before
the recess this month, but many conservatives are afraid the
deficit is already too big and want to make cuts to pay for the

One part of the plan involves building stockpiles of
influenza drugs, which would not provide a cure but which might
help make the most vulnerable patients less ill.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey in