WASHINGTON (CNN) -- America's top health official says the world is "woefully unprepared" to respond to a pandemic, a problem made more urgent by concerns that the current avian flu virus could spread into a global health crisis.

"The world is woefully unprepared," Mike Leavitt, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, told CNN Thursday.

"You'd think that it would be a matter of constant concern to us. It has not been, anywhere in the world and, consequently, the world is unprepared. And we're now as a civilization rallying to say, 'What can we do to better prepare?'"

Leavitt made his comments as health experts from around the world gathered in Washington to discuss the possibility of a flu pandemic.

The two-day conference is bringing together representatives of more than 80 countries and international organizations about preventing the spread of the avian flu virus.

Leavitt, who is hosting the event along with U.S. Global Affairs Undersecretary Paula Dobriansky, said officials were trying to devise a comprehensive surveillance plan so that the virus could be monitored closely, allowing for a quick response if it was seen to be spreading.

That way, he said, "if it happens in Thailand or Laos or Cambodia, the rest of the world can go there and help them contain it. Containment is our first strategy."

The conference will hold a plenary session Friday, before breaking into sessions on prevention, response and containment and preparedness and planning for a pandemic.

Officials participating in the session said the United States hoped the conference would produce 10 to 15 key policy priorities for countries to implement -- proposals first unveiled last month at the U.N. General Assembly.

The principles include transparency of quick and accurate reporting of outbreaks, donor support for affected countries and a pledge to work with the World Health Organization.

One senior U.S. State Department official said the goal of the conference was to build "political momentum" for countries to coordinate their efforts to quickly identify and respond to cases in animals or people so the disease does not spread.

The United States also wants to help build capacity of affected countries that may not be equipped to deal with an outbreak.

The Bush administration has seized on the avian flu as a potential threat.

A senior official from the U.S. Agency for International Development said Andrew Natsios, the agency's administrator, had made the virus "the top priority" for allocation of funding and personnel.

President George W. Bush has said aggressive action would be needed to prevent a potentially disastrous U.S. outbreak of the disease.

But his call for Congress to give him the power to use the military in law enforcement roles in the event of a bird flu pandemic has been criticized as akin to introducing martial law. (Full story)

The White House has also called on representatives of the pharmaceutical industry to meet Friday about getting involved in the manufacturing of more flu vaccines.

In his interview with CNN, Leavitt also said the United States needed to do more at home.

"We also need to have surveillance domestically, so if it shows up here we know about it very quickly," he said.

Plenty of antiviral drugs and vaccines needed to be available on short notice, he said, and local communities must be well-versed on how to respond "because a pandemic is something that happens all over the country at the same time."

"This is a unique type of problem that we need to be better prepared for," Leavitt said. "A pandemic is essentially nature's terrorist."

The World Health Organization has confirmed at least 116 cases of the current bird flu virus, including 60 deaths -- with a mortality rate of more than 50 percent.

All but a handful of cases were caused by direct contact with sick birds, suggesting the virus, so far, is unable to move easily among humans.

But health officials have warned that with continued exposure to people, the virus could mutate further and develop that ability.

Officials have expressed fears that the virus is currently acting similarly to the 1918 flu virus, a pandemic that killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million people.

Researchers announced Wednesday that they had reconstructed the 1918 strain of flu virus, a major advancement that could speed up preparation for -- and potentially thwart -- a pandemic. (Full story)

It marks the first time an infectious agent behind a historic pandemic has ever been recreated.

Australia is set to host a meeting of the 21 members of APEC at the end of October, where pandemic and disaster management coordinators will discuss the Asia-Pacific region's response to the threat. (Full story)

Source: CNN