Flu Pandemic Lurking?

Some public health officials believe a deadly worldwide flu pandemic is inevitable. They say it would likely involve a new strain of the virus that spreads easily from person-to-person.

And, while admitting it can't be ruled out, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt says precautions are being taken to try to keep officials ahead of the curve.

"We've had three pandemics of different proportion in the last century," Leavitt

co-anchor Harry Smith on The Early Show Monday. "These things do happen. They're like biologic earthquakes. They will occur. The important thing is that we're prepared when they do and find ways to minimize them."

The so-called Asian bird flu is "the pandemic we're worried about currently," Leavitt continued. "Since 1997, when it first began to appear, we've seen it appear in some 10 or more countries. Since 2004, we've been able to identify 109 cases where it has actually transmitted to people. About half of those died. So it is of concern.

"And we're doing things that I believe are common sense. We're increasing the amount of surveillance or early warning that we have in other countries. We have some of the best people in the world, literally, from the United States who are on the ground in the countries where it exists, to be able to help those countries identify it and deal with it."

Leavitt explained that the flu virus "is constantly migrating and changing. The big worry when a pandemic occurs is when there's a skip, or actually, not just migrates or drifts, but actually skips into something brand new that people don't have an immunity to.

"That's when we begin to see the kind of person-to-person-to-person transition or transmission, rather, where one person gives it to two and two to four and four to eight and so forth, and it spreads across the globe, sometimes very rapidly. And that's what we have to avoid and (it's) the reason that we're doing all we can to assure that we know when it occurs and that we can take good public health measures. We're working to develop vaccines and stocking stockpiles of antiviral medicines and learning how best to get them into the hands of people as quickly as possible."

Leavitt assured Smith supplies of flu medicines should be adequate this season.

"If everything goes as expected," he says, "we will. We're constantly monitoring, making certain that we do have them and in the right places.

"There's a lot that can be learned from the past. We're doing everything we can to apply those lessons to make certain that those who produce the flu vaccine are doing it in a way that's acceptable to us, and that we can distribute them across the country."