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Investigators cite shortfalls in bird flu precautions

WASHINGTON - Federal investigators said Monday that the nation's preparedness for a potential influenza pandemic is hindered by a lack of training and testing.

The Government Accountability Office said the Bush administration's bird flu plan provides a broad description of the responsibilities of federal agencies. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services is to lead the medical response. Homeland Security would lead other aspects of the response. But, there would undoubtedly be overlapping responsibilities that are not clearly defined.

Since the release of the plan in May 2006, national pandemic exercises involving multiple agencies have not been conducted. Such exercises would show which agencies understand their responsibilities, the GAO said.

Rep. Henry Waxman,

D-Calif., one of the lawmakers to request the report, said he was alarmed that key federal leadership roles were not adequately defined or tested.

'It is vital to resolve questions of turf, responsibility and performance in advance, rather than in the heat of an actual pandemic,' said Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Influenza pandemics can strike when the easy-to-mutate flu virus shifts to a strain that people never have experienced. Scientists cannot predict when the next pandemic will arrive, although concern is rising that the Asian bird flu might trigger one if it starts spreading easily from person to person.

The investigators recommended that the secretaries of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services conduct rigorous exercises for pandemic influenza. Once leadership roles are clarified, the secretaries then should work with the private sector and state and local governments to make sure they understood as well.

The investigators credit the Bush administration for taking an active approach to a potential pandemic. It has established an information clearinghouse for pandemic information, developed checklists for businesses and individuals. It also has awarded more than $350 million in grants to state and local governments for pandemic planning, but 'considerably more work needs to be done.'

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security said they concurred with the recommendations. The department has already taken action on many of the shortfalls highlighted in the report, and it's working closely with HHS to conduct a series of pandemic exercises, officials said in a written response to the investigators.