Mr. Speaker, in November 2005, President Bush announced a “National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza”, which contained plans “to prepare our nation, and our world to fight this potentially devastating outbreak of infectious disease.” Clearly, our government must develop and implement thorough plans to detect, respond to and recover from an avian flu pandemic in the event that an outbreak occurs in United States. However, our country cannot effectively combat avian flu unilaterally. That is why today I am introducing the Global Trade Requires Unmitigated Truth in Health (TRUTH) Act, a bill that seeks to address global health risks in an era of unprecedented international commerce that has created enormous opportunities while also speeding the spread of communicable diseases.
As global trade increases the number of products crossing international borders at faster rates, we also see in increase in harmful and dangerous diseases flying across our borders. With mounting concerns surrounding avian flu and recent experience with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), governments have not only the right but the responsibility to protect their countries from the threat of disease.
Because avian flu cases have been confirmed in Asia, Europe and the Middle East and the ease of international travel increases the chances that avian flu could emerge in our country, our health officials need the latest epidemiological data as soon as cases are confirmed abroad. The Global TRUTH Act will ensure that all countries that participate in global trade are also good citizens when it comes to protecting the global public health.
The SARS outbreak in Asia in 2002 and 2003 highlighted the inherent dangers in delayed reporting of public health risks for the supposed benefit of international trade. When a country is reluctant to publicize early cases of disease for fear of such an announcement’s economic effects, that disease is allowed to spread. In order to maintain a system of global public health preparedness, we should enshrine fundamental public health preparedness principles in the international trading system, including the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Unfortunately, press reports have indicated that Indonesian officials covered up and then neglected the spreading bird flu in Indonesia for two years until it began to infect humans. According to an Indonesian microbiologist, the Indonesian government could have eradicated its emerging avian flu outbreak if it had acted sooner. Moreover, Indonesia’s national director of animal health admitted that Indonesian government officials did not set aside money to vaccinate poultry against the disease this year, despite assurances that such vaccination would be a principal component of the government’s avian flu containment plan. Vietnam and China also reportedly failed to take steps that could have contained the virus in Asia.
As noted by the Indonesian microbiologist who first identified the flu virus in the country’s bird population, failure of the Indonesian government to take prompt action to stamp out avian flu inside the country’s borders has deadly consequences far beyond them. Two years ago when it was revealed that Chinese officials had covered up the existence of SARS inside their country, I urged President Bush to link international trade benefits to international cooperation on public health issues that transcend national boundaries. China eventually responded to international pressure by permitting World Health Organization (WHO) officials to investigate in the affected provinces, but, according to then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, “If Chinese authorities had reported cases in the beginning of the epidemic, the impact of SARS on the international health and economy would likely have been substantially more limited.”
The avian flu outbreak spreading through Asia and Europe presents serious public health challenges for our government and nations around the world. Prevention and containment of infectious diseases are only possible if governments report outbreaks immediately, permit medical researchers to investigate cases, and take protective measures such as vaccinations and quarantines, where appropriate.
In order to both achieve vital public health goals and continue the spread of international trade, the Global TRUTH Act directs the United States Trade Representative to submit a proposal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) that states that the WTO take into account whether countries are undermining the international trading system through a failure to comply withthe WHO’s International Health Regulations. The Global TRUTH Act directs the US Trade Representative to propose that the WTO should enforce strong public health considerations by imposing sanctions or other punitive measures on members who are found to violate the International Health Regulations as well as requiring all member countries to abide by rules of other international organizations with regard to public health. By requiring countries to follow the regulations of the WHO in order to be a member of the WTO, we will link the related goals of improved global public health and increased global trade.
The Global TRUTH Act also requires the Department of Health and Human Services to prepare an annual “Global Public Health Assessment”, modeled on the State Department’s country-by-country human rights reports. The purpose of the assessment is to report to Congress on the status of compliance with and observance of the International Health Regulations in each country that is a member of the World Health Organization.
The Global TRUTH Act is an important tool in the improvement of global public health standards and the ever- growing international marketplace. Louis Pasteur famously said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Early detection is critical to the success of our nation’s avian flu preparedness plans. By working simultaneously to decrease global public health risks and remove a potential roadblock from international trade, the Act will ensure that international trade decisions are not made at the expense of public health, thus allowing for safer trade and a safer, healthier global community.