Remarks of U.S. Senator Barack Obama Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill and the Avian Flu

July 18, 2005

Mr. President, I rise today in support of H.R. 2057, the Foreign Operations Appropriation Bill. I'd also like to highlight one aspect of the bill.

Since coming to the Senate six months ago, one of the foreign policy and health issues I have focused on relates to the avian flu. I am pleased that this bill includes $10 million to combat the spread of this potential pandemic, adding to the $25 million that the Senate provided in the supplemental appropriations bill in April.

I thank the managers of this bill, Senators McConnell and Leahy, and their staffs for working with me on this important issue. I know that Senator McConnell has a longstanding interest in Southeast Asia, and Senator Leahy has always been a champion of international health issues, making the avian flu something I know they both care deeply about.

In the last few weeks, scientists have reported that a deadlier version of the avian flu has now spread to migrant birds that could carry the disease out of Asia and across the world.

While it may not seem that threatening to many Americans at first, this bird flu could easily transform into a human flu. And if it does, it could be one of the deadliest flus mankind has ever known - even worse than the 1918 flu pandemic that killed 675,000 Americans and 50 million worldwide.

Already, there have been 108 human cases of avian flu, resulting in 54 deaths. And while the virus has not yet mutated into a full-blown human flu, recent developments suggest it might be heading in that direction. In recent months, the virus has been detected in mammals that have never previously been infected, including tigers, leopards and cats. A few weeks ago, the World Health Organization reported that avian flu strains in Vietnam are lasting longer and spreading to more humans. And according to government officials, a few cases of human-to-human spread have already occurred.

Every day, there are new reports about the increasing dangers of the avian flu. Last month, it was revealed that Chinese farmers have tried to suppress outbreaks of the avian flu by using human antiviral drugs on infected animals. As a result, one strain of the virus has become resistant to these drugs, thus making the drugs ineffective in protecting humans against a possible pandemic. And just this week, researchers found that ducks infected with the virus were contagious for up to 17 days, causing the animals to become - in the researchers' words - "medical Trojan horses" for transmitting the disease to humans.

Simply put, the world is not ready for a potential outbreak of this deadly flu. In fact, we aren't even close.

There is no known vaccine for the avian flu, and producing one could take months once an outbreak occurs. And while the World Health Organization recommends that every nation stockpiles enough flu treatment to treat a quarter of its population, the United States has only ordered enough to treat less than 1% of ours.

We can't just stand by and hope that this virus doesn't reach our shores when it only takes hours to travel from one side of the world to the other. It's time for America to lead the world in taking decisive action to prevent a potential global tragedy.

We should start by doing what we can to fight the virus while it's still mainly in Southeast Asia. That's why I fought for and obtained $25 million for prevention efforts by the CDC, the Agency for International Development, the Health and Human Services Department, and other agencies. And that's why I requested another $10 million in this bill.

In addition, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved language that I offered directing President Bush to form a senior-level task force to devise an international strategy to deal with the avian flu and coordinate policy among our government agencies. I hope that the Bush administration forms this task force immediately without waiting for legislation to be passed.

Yet, these are only modest first steps. International health experts believe that Southeast Asia will be an epicenter of influenza for decades. That's why we need to create a permanent framework for curtailing the spread of future infectious diseases - a framework that would increase international disease surveillance, response capacity and public education and coordination, especially in Southeast Asia.

But we must also prepare our own country in the event that a global pandemic reaches America. That's why I recently introduced the AVIAN Act, which helps make sure that Americans are protected from a possible outbreak of the avian flu.

When the threat is this real, we should be increasing research into possible flu vaccines, and we should be ordering enough doses of flu treatment to cover the recommended 25% of our population - just like England and other Western countries have done.

We should also ensure that our Health and Human Services department and state governments put in place a plan as to how they would address a potential flu pandemic, including the purchasing and distributing of vaccines. A year after a draft of a federal plan was published, a final version has yet to be finalized. We shouldn't have to wait any longer, because the avian flu certainly won't.

We are extremely fortunate that so far, the avian flu has not been found in the United States. But in an age when you can board planes in Bangkok or Hong Kong and arrive in Chicago, Burlington or Louisville in hours, we must face the reality that these exotic killer diseases are not isolated health problems half a world away, but direct and immediate threats to security and prosperity here at home.

Again, I thank Senators McConnell and Leahy for including this important funding in the supplemental appropriations bill and now including additional funding in this bill. And I thank the distinguished chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Lugar, for his leadership on this issue

I ask unanimous consent that several articles and editorials about the avian flu be included in the record. Thank you, and I yield the floor.