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WASHINGTON – The Congressional Budget Office reports a severe pandemic of avian flu hitting the U.S. would kill 2 million Americans and throw the country into a major recession.

The CBO report predicted about 90 million Americans would get sick, health-care facilities would be overwhelmed, schools closed, with the retail sector hard hit and air travel falling by two-thirds.

The agency said in the report issued yesterday to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a physician, that even a milder bout would kill 100,000 Americans.

“A viral pandemic is no longer a question of if, but it’s a question of when,” said Frist after reviewing the report. “In recent weeks, the growing death toll of the avian flu virus and that mounting drumbeat of discussion have placed the virus under the microscope of the public eye.”

While it is believed the avian flu is not yet transmitting from human to human, scientists and health officials fear a mutation in the strain could lead to such a contagion.

“The study I report today from the Congressional Budget Office sends a strong and a powerful message,” said Frist. “A $675 billion hit to our economy — almost half of which is brought on by factors which can be eliminated by appropriate planning — gives us every reason to act now with a prescription and immediately implement that course of action.”

The H5N1 flu stain, so far believed to be carried only by birds, is extremely virulent, with death rates of more than 50 percent among humans who have contracted the disease.

“A highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza has not been known before to spread so widely and so rapidly,” the CBO report said.

In a pandemic similar in scope to the 1918-19 Spanish flu outbreak, 30 percent of Americans would become ill and 2.5 percent of those would die, according to the CBO.

“The most important effects would be a sharp decline in demand as people avoided shopping malls, restaurants and other public spaces, and a shrinking of labor supply as workers became ill or stayed home out of fear or to take care of others who were sick,” the report said.

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