Doctor: States Unprepared for Bird Flu

The Associated Press
Friday, May 19, 2006; 3:48 AM

WASHINGTON -- Bird flu will hit the United States _ it's only a matter of time _ and not all states are ready to respond to the deadly virus, the Homeland Security Department's top doctor warns.

Dr. Jeffrey Runge, homeland security's chief medical officer, said "it's not a matter of if, but when" bird flu enters the country. But it won't pose a critical threat until the virus can spread consistently between people, he said.

In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Runge said states with experience in dealing with hurricanes or terrorist attacks are more ready to face bird flu.

He did not identify those that have been slow to prepare, but said state and local governments must carry most of burden of planning for an outbreak, including readying emergency medical workers, providing hospital beds and setting up treatment centers outside of immediate disaster areas.

"Some states still have the idea that if it makes people sick, it's simply a health event," Runge said. "And others are much more forward reaching, and understand that they have to prepare for things like civil unrest, or interruption of the supply chain, or the failure of critical infrastructure to keep going, to keep the nation going in the event of some catastrophic event. And those are the ones that we think are the best prepared."

Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., who leads the National Governors Association, said states have "pretty much been told to prepare to row their own boat" in responding to bird flu.

Federal health officials "were pretty candid with us," Huckabee said in an interview. "The federal government simply does not have the resources themselves to deal with this on a mass level. And if a pandemic does occur, it will overwhelm their resources, just like it will overwhelm ours."

Scientists believe the flu most likely would be carried into the United States by a wild bird migrating from a country that has had an outbreak.

Runge credited agriculture inspectors and poultry producers with adopting tough security standards to prevent visitors from exposing fowl to the virus. He recalled hearing from an inspector that "it was tougher to get into a chicken coop than it was to get into our DHS headquarters."

Runge's department is responsible for blocking potentially infected birds and bird products from entering the U.S. at airports, seaports and international borders. Unions representing U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have complained they have not been trained to identify bird smugglers or to quarantine birds arriving from countries that have had flu outbreaks.

Runge expressed some frustration with the level of training so far. "I wish I could say it had all already been done," he said. "Right now the planning is coordinated, but the education is not as coordinated as we'd like. That having been said, everybody around here's gotten a lot smarter about it."


On the Net:

Homeland Security Department:

Customs and Border Protection:

© 2006 The Associated Press