Congress to look at agencies' efforts to fight avian flu

Panel examining whether DHS, HHS initiatives are integrated.

As avian influenza spreads, Congress is beginning to prepare for the reauthorization next year of a bioterrorism measure aimed at addressing key public health initiatives.

A 2002 law that aims to coordinate national monitoring, response and reporting in the case of bioterrorism or health emergencies is up for reauthorization in 2007. But since its enactment, the Homeland Security Department has been charged with the surveillance and detection of bioterrorism attacks. And in 2004, the Health and Human Services Department launched its health information technology initiative, which includes the monitoring of and response to public health emergencies.

"We are trying to look at all of those [efforts underway] to determine how they are or are not integrated," Jennifer Bryning said Wednesday during a Capitol Hill briefing, where experts also demonstrated tools for health emergencies. Bryning works on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Bioterrorism Subcommittee.

Since a 2003 Government Accountability Office report, there has been concern that HHS and Homeland Security are duplicating efforts. The report concluded that preparedness for a bioterrorism attack varies across state and local jurisdictions.

The federal government's clumsy response to Hurricane Katrina in August has highlighted the idea of situational awareness, Bryning said. And given the growing threat of an avian flu outbreak, there is a heightened need to think about animal health surveillance, she added.

The World Health Organization on Monday confirmed 171 cases of avian flu, of which 93 people have died. Since then, new cases have been confirmed in Indonesia and Iraq. As a result, Bryning said the HELP subcommittee will focus on three overarching areas: leadership, the role of local health officials, and hospital preparedness.

The subcommittee will review the leadership roles in the national response plan. While HHS is responsible for public health, "there was confusion about how the plan was implemented" by different agencies, she said.

As Congress tackles the broad issues, there are many who are testing new ways to better detect and respond to emergencies. The Army is working with college laboratories to develop air, water and wind sensors that gather data, which is transmitted to mesh networks in real time.

And the National Library of Medicine is moving data from an Internet-based database of toxic chemicals to a wireless information system where emergency responders can receive information on handheld devices in the field, said Jack Snyder of the National Library of Medicine.