Keeping us safe
Extra attention to existing and emerging health threats is welcome news
In the weeks since the failed Christmas Day airliner bombing, so much of the debate has centered on how well—or just how poorly—the anti-terrorism “system” worked. More important of course, as President Barack Obama made clear in his recent statements addressing the shortcomings leading up to the attempted attack, is what can be learned from the incident.
Integral to ongoing evaluation and preparation for future threats will be our nation’s public health leadership, public safety and first-responder corps, and every single person involved in frontline healthcare delivery. Prevention and interdiction are the top jobs under counterterrorism, but if the unthinkable occurs, it’s those people who will feel it first.
That was part of the message from HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius just last week when she announced the release of the first-ever national health security strategy. She said improving our nation’s ability to address existing and emerging health threats is a responsibility to be shared by all of us.
Last month, the weapon of choice for the al-Qaida-linked would-be bomber was once again a U.S. jumbo jet. Luck, and some brave passengers and crew members, intervened. But what about some other, more ominous weapons? Specifically, what’s the state of our defenses against bioterrorism? Here, the news hasn’t been good. Just last October, an interim report published by the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism raised plenty of red flags, concluding that the U.S. is not doing enough to address what the panel deems is the most urgent threat: biological proliferation and terrorism.
“The clock is ticking,” according to Bob Graham, the commission’s chairman and a former U.S. senator. “The United States has taken action, but we have not kept pace with those who would do us, or the world com- munity, harm. The terrorists are flexible and increasingly capable. The executive branch, the legislative branch, and even the American people must do more.” While the report noted progress toward recommendations made in an earlier, equally alarming 2008 report, it also cited several areas of concern, including our nation’s disease-surveillance capabilities.
As the report states, “The ability for the nation to recognize a disease emergency—whether it is deliberate or naturally occurring—is the first link in a chain that leads to a robust public health response.”
In the same vein, America’s response to the H1N1 flu pandemic also tells a cautionary story.
While public health leaders are to be commended for their game plan to educate the nation on the threat of H1N1 and mitigate its spread, the fight against this virus certainly exposed a serious vulnerability in the disease-fighting arsenal: production and distribution of a vaccine.
Back in mid-October, when the cases of the “swine flu” seemed to be exploding, and when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had predicted some 40 million vaccine doses would be available, the actual count fell short by about 25%—or 10 million to 12 million doses.
The trusted but outdated egg-based production method used to grow the virus for the vaccines proved unpredictable with H1N1. Another complication came months later when some 800,000 doses of the children’s vaccine had to be recalled because of diminished potency.
This experience calls into question the nation’s reaction time to produce and deliver an effective vaccine should some man-made pathogen prove to be much more virulent than H1N1. The human toll from such delays in the access to a vaccine could be horrific, so it’s vital that this nation speed up the move to new processes and technologies.
HHS’ new health strategy is good news, but there’s hard work ahead.
DAVID MAY Assistant Managing