WASHINGTON - U.S. lawmakers plan to take a closer look this week at the federal government's response to the swine flu outbreak that has sickened people in five states and killed dozens in Mexico.
At least three hearings are planned, beginning with a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday on steps to protect public health in the wake of the discovery of the disease in the United States.
Anthony Fauci, an expert on prevention and treatment of infectious diseases and director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was among witnesses scheduled to testify at the emergency Agriculture Committee hearing.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were due to discuss coordinating the federal response to swine flu before the Senate Homeland Security on Wednesday.
The House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee slated a hearing for Thursday to discuss the outbreak and the next steps for a federal response. The hearing aims to ensure that all the agencies responsible for protecting the public's health are coordinating appropriately with all due diligence to avert a potential disaster, said subcommittee chairman Frank Pallone, a Democrat.
The swine flu virus has so far killed 149 people in Mexico, but has not caused deaths elsewhere despite spreading to the United States, Canada and parts of Europe, health officials have said. Cases have been confirmed in California, Kansas, Ohio, New York and Texas.
PANDEMIC FUNDING DROPPED FROM STIMULUS BILL
Efforts to prepare for a possible pandemic have been under way for years. Some health experts, however, have been critical of the federal government's work long-term to prepare for possible pandemics.
Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit group that advocates for emergency preparedness, said officials had made progress but called on Congress to fully fund a $7.1 billion flu strategy proposed by President George W. Bush.
The group said $870 million of that sum was included in the government's fiscal 2008 budget and in the 2009 economic stimulus bill but removed in both cases before passage.
It certainly wouldn't have made a difference in terms of the response to what's happening today, (but) it will slow down the level of preparedness that we could have at a later date, said Jeff Levi, the group's executive director.
Democratic Rep. Dave Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he included $420 million for pandemic flu preparedness in the stimulus bill but the money was removed after a number of senators objected. Obey said he would request more funds in an upcoming spending measure.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins and nearly 20 of her colleagues felt the funding should go through the regular congressional appropriations process instead of being included in the stimulus bill, Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley said.
Collins has supported other pandemic spending and there is no evidence that federal efforts to address the swine flu outbreak have been hampered by a lack of funds, Kelley said.
The federal government has worked to boost domestic manufacturing capacity for flu vaccines after a flu shot shortage in 2004, giving five companies a total of $1 billion.
We're better prepared today than we were four years ago ... We're in the process of rebuilding the vaccine production capacity in this county, former U.S. Health Secretary Mike Leavitt, a Republican who oversaw much of that effort under Bush, told Reuters on Friday.
Leavitt added that the federal government has worked with state and local authorities to develop action plans in case of a flu outbreak or other widespread health disasters.
Democratic senators said so far officials at all levels appear to be coordinating their efforts.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said people need to work with local officials so that we can stop the spread. It appears they are on top of things very quickly and moving on this very quickly.