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Published: Saturday, 11/5/2005

The fight against the flu

PRESIDENT Bush's $7.1-billion plan to protect the United States from an epidemic of bird flu could leave millions of people vulnerable to superflu for years into the future.

The plan, announced Tuesday, stresses the use of new technology to produce flu vaccines faster than is possible with the 1950s-era process now in use.

Flu shots are the first line of defense against both ordinary winter flu, and newly emerging strains like avian flu. Mr. Bush should be commended for an effort to jump-start the transition to this more efficient vaccine production.

The changeover, however, will take years.

Even then, there will still be a gap of months between the appearance of a dangerous new flu strain and availability of a vaccine. In an epidemic of bird flu, or some other new superflu, those could be months of widespread suffering and death.

The second line of defense against flu, which could prevent that situation, got too little emphasis in Mr. Bush's plan.

It involves use of anti-viral drugs to protect people from getting the flu, and treat those who are infected. Medications like Tamiflu and Relenza fill the gap between the appearance of a new flu variety and the availability of a vaccine. They can be lifesavers until a vaccine goes to work.

Mr. Bush's plan would spend $1 billion to stockpile only enough anti-viral drugs to protect about 25 per cent of the population. In addition, it counts on individual states to buy almost one-third of the drugs. Some states, of course, may not have the cash or the resolve to do so.

Amassing huge stockpiles of these drugs is a calculated risk. If a superflu virus develops drug resistance, these medications could lose their punch. Indeed, the current bird flu virus does show early signs of resistance to Tamiflu.

However, the risk is well worth taking.

The United States cannot leave 75 percent of its population - almost 225 million people - with no safety net against superflu.

Fortunately, the U.S. Senate already has passed legislation that would assure abundant supplies of anti-viral drugs by building a $3 billion stockpile. Congress is on the right track with this more balanced approach, which would safeguard Americans in the short term and the long run.

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