Avian Flu

D.C. Plans Summit on Pandemic Response

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

District officials will hold a summit next month on pandemic influenza that they hope will draw hundreds of people from the city's business, health care, education and religious communities and continue the city's preparation for a potential outbreak.

The meeting was announced yesterday during a news conference on the city's planning efforts, which just received a $635,000 boost from the federal government for equipment purchases, training and the stockpiling of antiviral drugs.

With the spread of avian flu across the globe, and the threat posed should the deadly H5N1 strain mutate to allow human-to-human transmission, the federal government is urging states, cities and even neighborhoods to ready themselves for the extended and extensive disruption a pandemic could cause in every aspect of daily life.

"No community is safe. No community is exempt. No community has some barrier that will protect it," said Assistant U.S. Health Secretary John O. Agwunobi, whose warning was echoed by D.C. Health Director Gregg A. Pane and Barbara Childs-Pair, the emergency management director.

"This is not just a public health event," Pane said.

The news conference took place shortly after federal officials unveiled an expanded screening program for early detection of avian flu in the United States.

As migratory birds begin their springtime travels, the program aims to collect up to 100,000 samples from live and dead wild birds in Alaska and along major flyways on all coasts, as well as water and fecal samples from waterfowl habitats.

"It is increasingly likely that we will detect a highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian flu in birds within U.S. borders, possibly as early as this year," Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said in announcing the screening plan with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.

"We are working together to expand our early warning system," Norton said.

The fear is that the deadly strain could trigger a pandemic to rival the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed tens of millions of people worldwide. A substantial number of scientists and health experts say the question is not if but when.

Pane and Childs-Pair said their agencies are working with business groups and schools to develop contingency plans. "This is not something we have all the answers for," Childs-Pair said.

The District's summit will be April 28 at Gallaudet University.

People interested in attending should call the D.C. Health Department at 202-442-9195.

Staff writer Rob Stein contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company