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Officials Stockpile Vaccine, Drugs Against Avian Flu

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 6, 2005 – Health officials estimate the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide -- more than died in World War I. Now President Bush is concerned that a strain of avian flu that has killed millions of birds in Asia could mutate and cross over to humans.

"I am concerned about what an avian flu outbreak could mean for the United States and the world," Bush said during an Oct. 4 news conference. "I have thought through the scenarios of what an avian flu outbreak could mean."

The Department of Defense is preparing in case the worst happens. DoD is stockpiling vaccine to combat the so-called avian flu and amassing antiviral drugs.

The avian flu has killed millions of domesticated and wild birds in Asia - mostly in Southeast Asia and China. At least 116 humans have caught the virus. Roughly half of them have died. "This information, combined with what we know about influenza viruses and avian influenza viruses, gives us cause for concern for the possibility of a widespread outbreak of this virus in humans," Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said here today.

Right now the virus is not easily transferred between birds and humans. But, if the virus genetically mutates, it may more easily pass from birds and humans and more easily pass from human to human, Winkenwerder said. "We have to prepare for the possibility of an outbreak," he said.

The doctor said it is important for DoD to take precautions to protect servicemembers and their families. It is also important because "in event of an outbreak, we may well be called in to assist with civil authorities in the United States or to assist in evacuations of personnel from overseas."

He said there are a number of ways where the medical and logistical expertise of DoD could be called upon by lead federal agencies in the event of a pandemic.

DoD has tasked combatant commands to develop emergency influenza preparedness and response plans. The U.S. Pacific Command, which dealt with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, commonly called SARS, in 2003 and has dealt with the current avian flu, has completed their plans. The other combatant commands are finishing theirs, Winkenwerder said.

The doctor said the National Institutes of Health has developed a vaccine for the H5N1 avian flu strain. DoD currently has about 200,000 doses. "As we speak, that vaccine is being mass produced. By the end of this year we will have a few million doses of that vaccine," he said. "By the end of 2006 we will have tens of millions of doses of that vaccine.

"The step we have taken for the military is that we obtain the first amounts of that vaccine," he continued. "I expect that by the end of this year we will have sufficient supplies of this vaccine."

DoD is also stockpiling an antiviral medication called Tamiflu. "DoD is quickly moving to a good state of preparedness for the avian flu," Winkenwerder said.

But the avian flu isn't the only threat out there, nor is it even the most likely. DoD is also accepting delivery of 3.5 million doses of the "regular" flu vaccine.

The regular flu hits yearly in winter months. Older people, those with compromised immune systems, and young children are most at risk of serious complications. Yet, all Americans should avail themselves of the vaccine. "We're advising people to take the vaccine," Winkenwerder said. "We do not expect shortages of the vaccine like we experienced last year."

DoD will begin to vaccinate military personnel and family members and retirees for the regular flu shortly. The department will not begin vaccination for the bird flu until there is a threat, Winkenwerder said.

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Biographies:
Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr.


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