July 21, 2006

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.