"Any community that fails to prepare with the expectation that the federal government will come to the rescue will be tragically wrong," Leavitt said in a speech at a Texas pandemic influenza summit hosted by the Texas Department of State Health Services. "There is no way that a national government could respond to 5,000 locations at the same time. This is the difference between a pandemic and any other disaster."
Leavitt and other health and government officials at the summit urged local governments, schools, businesses and individual families to take the lead in preparing now for a potential health disaster that could rival the 1918 Spanish flu.
"A pandemic of the same proportion as we had in 1918 would cause 90 million people in the United States to become ill," Leavitt foresees. "Half, 45 million, would require serious medical attention and about 2 million would die."
Leavitt indicated that if a pandemic occur, it would last from a year to 18 months and strike in waves lasting six to eight weeks each. He further warned that during that time the country might be additionally taxed by being forced to cope with natural disasters or terrorist attacks.
"No one is well-prepared for a pandemic," he said. "When it comes to a pandemic, we're overdue and under prepared."
So far, isolated cases of bird-to-human transmissions of a virulent form of the flu have resulted in 105 human deaths overseas. Human-to-human transmissions have not yet been reported. If contaminated poultry should enter the food supply, experts have said that normal cooking temperatures and procedures kill the virus.
The disease has quickly spread from Asia to the Middle East and continental Europe. The illness has not been detected in the Americas, but some estimate it could arrive with migrating birds within six months.