(ENS) WASHINGTON -- In the event of a bird flu pandemic that spreads among humans in the United States, President Bush is considering using the military to impose a quarantine on the affected areas. Currently state governors command their state National Guard units, but the President said Congress should look at changing that arrangement.
At a White House press conference Oct. 4, Bush said that as a former Texas governor he understands that some governors do not like the possibility that they might have to give up command of their state's National Guard, but "circumstances" may make it necessary "to vest the capacity of the President to move beyond that debate. And one such catastrophe, or one such challenge could be an avian flu outbreak," he said.
Health experts worry that H5N1, the highly pathenogenic form of avian flu that has caused 63 human deaths in four Asian countries and hundreds of millions of bird deaths across Asia since late 2003, might combine with a human flu virus and mutate into a new virus able to infect humans and spread from person to person.
President Bush said he too is concerned. "I am concerned about what an avian flu outbreak could mean for the United States and the world. I have thought through the scenarios of what an avian flu outbreak could mean," he said today.
"The policy decisions for a President in dealing with an avian flu outbreak are difficult," Bush said.
"One example: If we had an outbreak somewhere in the United States, do we not then quarantine that part of the country, and how do you then enforce a quarantine? It's one thing to shut down airplanes; it's another thing to prevent people from coming in to get exposed to the avian flu," he said.
"And who best to be able to effect a quarantine?" Bush asked. "One option is the use of a military that's able to plan and move."
The President asked Congress to debate the issue of which level of government should control the National Guard in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when National Guard personnel were brought in to assist with search, rescue and recovery -- sometimes too slowly to keep problems from ballooning out of control.
The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act bars federal troops from carrying out law enforcement duties inside the United States during peacetime, short of suppressing an insurrection.
Bush signaled that this law is up for review in a nationally televised address from New Orleans on September 15 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He said "a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces."
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan later said revision or repeal of the Posse Comitatus Act is an issue that "needs to be looked at" by Congress and the administration, saying that officials are in the "early planning of discussing it."
Again today, Bush urged Congress to debate the issue. "I think it's an important debate for Congress to have. I noticed the other day, evidently, some governors didn't like it. I understand that. I was the commander-in-chief of the National Guard, and proudly so, and, frankly, I didn't want the President telling me how to be the commander-in-chief of the Texas Guard."
"But Congress needs to take a look at circumstances that may need to vest the capacity of the President to move beyond that debate. And one such catastrophe, or one such challenge could be an avian flu outbreak."
Addressing the opening of the United Nations General Assembly September 14, President Bush announced a new International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza that will bring together key nations and international organizations to improve global readiness on this growing threat.
Today Bush told reporters that in addition to his public remarks about preparing for a flu pandemic, he also spoke to other national leaders gathered at UN Headquarters in New York.
"I spoke about it privately to as many leaders as I could find," Bush said, "about the need for there to be awareness, one, of the issue; and, two, reporting, rapid reporting to WHO, so that we can deal with a potential pandemic."
"The reporting needs to be not only on the birds that have fallen ill, but also on tracing the capacity of the virus to go from bird to person, to person. That's when it gets dangerous, when it goes bird-person-person," he said. "And we need to know on a real-time basis as quickly as possible, the facts, so that the scientific community, the world scientific community can analyze the facts and begin to deal with it."
The President said development of a vaccine so "not only would first responders be able to be vaccinated, but as many Americans as possible, and people around the world" would be helpful.
Health experts say development of a vaccine is impossible until the new virus appears because the virus itself is used in making the vaccine to fight it.
Bush said there is a spray that may be able to help arrest the spread of the disease, but it is "in relatively limited supply." He called on manufacturers around the world to boost supplies of the spray.
"I'm not predicting an outbreak," Bush said, "I'm just suggesting to you that we better be thinking about it. And we are. And we're more than thinking about it; we're trying to put plans in place."
The newly named United Nations coordinator of global responses to a pandemic of avian flu said Friday a global outbreak could kill between five million and 150 million people. Dr. David Nabarro told the BBC that he gave the higher figure because, "I want to be sure that when this next flu pandemic does come along, that we are prepared for the worst as well as for the mildest."
The World Health Organization backed away from the higher figure. Dick Thompson told a news conference in Geneva that the WHO's official estimate of the number of people who could die was between two million and 7.4 million.
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