Are We Prepared for Emerging Infectious Diseases?

By Drs. David Niesel and Norbert Herzog, Medical Discovery News

In the past several years, we have heard a lot about infectious microbes threatening the public health of all Americans. Some of the names of these agents seemed foreign at first but are familiar now - Ebola, MERS and Zika. But are these really new viruses causing disease? No, we have known about these microbes as disease threats in Africa, the Middle East and Central and South America for some time; we have known about Zika since the 1940s. A better way to describe these viruses is as emerging infectious diseases, viruses that used to be limited to small geographic foreign areas that now threaten to spread across the globe. And let's not forget the microbes that have plagued us for years like the flu. We are being assaulted from all directions.

Standing between us and infectious microbes is our public health infrastructure that protects all Americans from infectious disease threats. A recent report by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation raises concerns for our ability to prevent, detect, diagnose, respond and prevent infectious diseases outbreaks. They report, more than half of US states scored 5 or lower (out of 10) on key indicators related to managing infectious diseases. Some of these key indicators are public health funding, flu vaccination rates, HIV surveillance, childhood immunization rates, food safety, central line associated bloodstream hospital-acquired infections and the staffing and training activities of our state public health labs.

Here are some examples of the concerns raised by the report. For central line associated bloodstream infections, only 9 states reduced the standard infection rate associated with this procedure. Only 20 states met the target for childhood immunization. Eleven states failed to meet national performance standards for testing for the food illness caused by E. coli O157. Finally, 16 states failed to increase or even maintain public health funding over the past two years.

The scorecard in this report rates each state by how many of the 10 key public health indicators are met. No state met every recommended indicator but those at the top were Delaware, Kentucky, Maine, New York and Virginia who met 8 of the 10 criteria. At the bottom meeting just 3 of 10 criteria were Idaho, Utah, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma and Oregon. In total, 28 states failed to reach the midpoint achieving 5 of the 10 indicators. This is shocking and could represent a prescription for future public health disasters. Go to www.healthyamericans.org to view the scorecard and see how your state is doing.

This extensive and illuminating report makes numerous recommendations to improve our public health preparedness to handle these infectious disease threats.

Remember most infectious diseases are preventable. The reality remains that it will be less costly to take steps now to prevent, detect and limit infectious diseases than to treat people after acquiring one, especially after a major outbreak. The old adage by Ben Franklin, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" comes into play once again.

Medical Discovery News
is hosted by professors Norbert Herzog at Quinnipiac University, and David Niesel of the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.