WASHINGTON – While avian flu hasn't yet mutated to spread from human to human, the United States is not prepared for a possible global outbreak that could hit millions of Americans, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt (search) said Thursday.
"If a pandemic should happen tomorrow, we are inadequately prepared," Leavitt said in a speech to the National Press Club, following a 10-day tour of southeast Asia, where bird flu was first diagnosed. "We must achieve a state of readiness and response," he said.
Without offering a timeline, Leavitt said the Bush administration will soon announce a national plan on all levels of government to prepare for the threat of an outbreak.
In recent months, federal officials and lawmakers frequently have expressed concern that the bird flu virus could come to the United States and cause a pandemic. Currently, the virus has been transferred from bird to bird and bird to human. But it has not yet developed to spread from human to human.
Since late 2003, the virus has killed millions of birds and more than 60 people. Worldwide, 121 people are known to have contracted the virus, Leavitt said.
The most recent case of the H5N1 strain of bird flu (search) was reported in Croatia, European Union health officials announced Wednesday. Authorities also confirmed that a second parrot that died in quarantine in Great Britain was also found to be ill with the virus, although both parrots had been quarantined following import from Suriname, South America and were housed at the same facility as a shipment of birds that came from Taiwan.
While Leavitt's agency works with other government bureaus to develop a national response to a pandemic, the United States is also working to stockpile 5 million doses of bird flu inhibitor, Tamiflu (search). Earlier this week Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham R-S.C., announced that French drugmaker Roche Pharmaceuticals agreed to sub-license its product to four U.S. firms to create the drug, enabling the stockpile target to be met.
Health experts say they hope Tamiflu could be used in the worst-case scenario where a form of bird flu would have mutated and passed from person to person. No vaccine has been made for the human form of the virus, but some say Tamiflu could help prevent the flu from spreading among humans.
Meanwhile, the Senate approved $8 billion in new spending to prepare the nation for bird flu on Thursday.
Sen. Dick Durbin (search), D-Ill., pushed the legislation on the Senate floor.
"Are we prepared? The obvious answer is no," Durbin said. "When it comes to public health challenges, America can do better."
Durbin urged the Bush administration to release a plan to prepare the nation for the threat of an outbreak.
"We look forward to seeing this plan from the administration," Durbin said.
Some health experts compare the possible outbreak to the flu epidemic of 1918 that killed 15 million people.
But Wendy Orent (search), an anthropologist and author of “Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease,” told FOX News that the situation is not the same as it was in the early 1900s.
"The 1918 flu evolved in the crucible of World War I in the trenches of the western front — in the hospitals, the trucks, the ships, the railroad cars, which transported soldiers immobilized by illness all over the western front," she said, adding that airplane rides are not long enough to allow a microbe to evolve.
Orent also added that it's unlikely the virus will mutate to spread from human to human.
“It hasn’t shown any signs of jumping,” she told FOX News. “The only people who have been infected have been a very small number in the two years since the chicken flu or poultry flu began evolving in Asia."
Leavitt toured southeast Asia with a U.S. delegation of health officials to view how nations there are fighting the disease. Leavitt said he visited a family in a Vietnam village that had been infected after processing sick chickens. He said the family's situation is just one of millions that could occur across the country, which has more than 55 million farmers.
Other countries must work to prevent a possible outbreak, stockpile vaccines, create a network of preparedness and educate their residents, Leavitt said.
"No nation on Earth can afford to ignore this threat," he said.