Brown Chairs Senate Hearing on Swine Flu Epidemic

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) chaired a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee today entitled “The Swine Flu Epidemic: The Public Health and Medical Response.” In response to the hearing, Brown issued the following statement:

Emerging public health threats:  SARS, Anthrax, bioterrorism – all of these served as a wakeup call to bolster our public health capabilities.

We see now that the possibility of a pandemic outbreak is a very real threat and that if we let our public health infrastructure falter, it is our citizens who will suffer.

I would also like to thank Dr. Fauci and Dr. Besser for taking the time to provide us with an update on the administration’s ongoing efforts to contain and combat the swine flu outbreak.

This hearing is very timely in light of the fact that earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the influenza pandemic alert level from phase 3 to phase 4 – indicating that the likelihood of a pandemic has increased, but not that a pandemic is inevitable.

Domestically, we are seeing increases in cases of swine flu.  As of this afternoon, CDC was reporting 91 laboratory-confirmed cases of swine flu in ten states – including one confirmed case in Ohio. 

This morning it was reported that an infant in Texas died from this flu, the first confirmed fatality in the U.S.

Internationally, the situation has also become more serious with additional countries reporting confirmed cases of swine flu.  Yesterday, confirmed cases were identified in Israel and New Zealand, representing the first evidence that this virus has spread to the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions.  Confirmed cases have also been identified in Britain, Scotland, Canada, and Spain.

To date, virtually all cases outside of Mexico have been mild and sporadic, but geographically widespread, suggesting that more cases will emerge. 

For these reasons, it is imperative that Congress examine what efforts are currently being undertaken to ensure the safety of our citizens now –and what actions are being taken, going forward, to limit the spread of this virus and prevent future outbreaks.

To date, CDC and the Department of Homeland Security have taken aggressive and pro-active steps to respond to this outbreak and protect our nation’s public health.

CDC’s Division of the Strategic National Stockpile has already released one-quarter of its antiviral drugs (Tamiflu and Relenza), personal protective equipment, and respiratory protection devices to help states with confirmed cases of swine flu respond to this outbreak. 

CDC continues to issue daily guidance to public health departments and individuals and families about how to protect against this disease, what to do if you’re feeling sick, and how best to utilize community mitigation strategies in responding to this outbreak.

In addition, earlier this week CDC issued a travel warning recommending that people avoid non-essential travel to Mexico.

As the scope and extent of the swine flu outbreak becomes more clear over the next few days and weeks, it will be vitally important that Congress stay informed about all efforts taking place to protect our citizens, our families, and our communities.

It is also important that Congress work to ensure that the federal agencies responsible for leading our nation’s efforts against this dangerous outbreak have the resources and funding necessary to do their jobs and protect our people.

I am anxious to hear from our witnesses about the magnitude and extent of this outbreak; what we should expect in the coming days and weeks; how best our citizens should protect themselves; what efforts are currently underway to fight this deadly outbreak; what plans and infrastructure are in place should the situation worsen; and how we can help them do their job.

With that, I will conclude my opening statements because – while it is important for this committee to be briefed on the outbreak – it is most important that we let these leaders and experts get back to the important jobs they are doing out in the field.

Brown has been an outspoken proponent of pandemic preparedness measures. In 2003, while Brown was ranking member of the House Energy & Commerce Health Subcommittee, Congress passed the Project Bioshield Act. This legislation, which became law on July 21, 2004, accelerated the research, development, purchase, and availability of effective medical countermeasures against biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear agents.

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