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Former HHS secretary weighs in on swine flu outbreak



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SALT LAKE CITY -- Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt has plenty of perspective on the flu outbreak: he was Secretary of Health and Human Services until Jan. 20.

In that position, Leavitt traveled the world to assess the threat from flu outbreaks and he understands how well countries can respond. "We're overdue for a pandemic and under prepared," he told KSL News Monday.

Leavitt says United States' response plans for a flu pandemic have serious gaps, and that is the reality with any disaster plan.

"A pandemic is substantially more difficult to manage than most other natural disasters because it happens everywhere at the same time, and because the duration is typically longer," Leavitt said. Longer than a hurricane or chemical attack, for example.

Leavitt continued, "The good news is that this virus appears to be responsive to Tamiflu and Relenza."

Those are the two primary anti-virals stockpiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Humans Services, but Leavitt says a vaccine to prevent this flu could take a while to make. "A vaccine will take somewhere between eight and 20 weeks to be prepared to go into the market," he said. [Click here to listen to KSL Newsradio's full interview with Mike Leavitt]

Still, Leavitt says the country is better equipped to handle the swine flu than it was the bird flu three years ago. For the last three years, he and his department worked to develop the emergency plans playing out today, and he says the plans are better. The real action to protect the people, though, is at the state and local level.

Leavitt points out that the world has witnessed three flu pandemics in the last 100 years and 10 in the last 300 years. "They're a biologic fact and there's no reason to believe that in this century there will be a different outcome than in previous centuries, so we have to be prepared. We have to recognize these will happen," he said.

Whether the H1N1 Swine Flu develops into the next pandemic remains to be seen, but Leavitt says the signs are clear: the United States and the world need to prepare.

"At times, we have false alarms. Let's hope this is one of those, but it's a serious enough set of circumstances that the world health community has begun to respond," Leavitt said.

Now that he's home in Utah, Leavitt says he is writing and reflecting on his time in Washington and in Salt Lake City and planning his next endeavor. Right now he has no plans to run for public office, but he'll never say never.

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Story compiled with contributions from Jed Boal and Paul Nelson.

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