White House Assistant Talks of Bird Flu and Disaster Preparedness

May 3, 2006
Doug Gavel

The federal government is seriously considering the catastrophic health risks posed by a potential bird flu pandemic, and is fully engaged in preparing a response. That was the message delivered at the Kennedy School Forum Tuesday night by Frances Townsend, President Bush’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism.

“Only about 200 persons are known to have contracted the infection from birds thus far…but there is a very real possibility the virus could change. If this happens, it could be the start of a worldwide outbreak of influenza in humans,” she said.

As a result of the threat, the federal government has released an action-plan this week, that among other things calls for “dramatic investments in our domestic vaccine production infrastructure and technologies” and the establishment of an avian influenza office within the Department of State.

“It is important to demonstrate how seriously we take the threat and the many things the government is doing to prepare,” she said.

Townsend, who headed up the federal commission that examined the response to Hurricane Katrina, admitted that government coordination still has a long way to go.

“One of the many lessons we had to learn was that federal, state, and local governments, as well as the private sector, NGOs and faith-based groups, have not developed a shared commitment to preparedness. We haven’t developed a shared vision of what we must do to prevent, protect, respond to and recover from the next catastrophe,” she said. “Without that shared vision…we will not achieve a transformational state of preparedness that the nation requires.”

Townsend discussed the need to implement a national preparedness system and to “foster a new robust culture of preparedness” throughout all levels of government. “This will require the federal government to transform the way it does business,” she said.

Eliminating unnecessary government red tape, creating a more robust leadership training program, and fostering a more creative environment at the Department of Homeland Security are key elements, Townsend said, in such a transformation.

“We must not shy away from creating (disaster) scenarios that stress the systems of response to the breaking point, and challenge our nation in ways that we wish we did not have to imagine,” she said. “We must never again be in the position that we are accused of a failure of imagination.”

When asked if all this talk of disaster planning only fosters a culture of fear, Townsend disagreed.

“Preparation is the antidote to fear,” she replied. “If you’re prepared for something you fear it less. It’s not that we are trying to frighten the American people. What we are trying to go is engage in an unemotional dialogue about what you can do.”

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