Lessons Not Yet Learned: Ebola, Zika and Global Health Security

Despite a decade of lessons learned from fighting global health disasters like avian flu, SARS, and most recently Ebola, the United States continues to use an ineffective 'crisis-by-crisis' approach to combat health emergencies. With the Zika virus now challenging domestic and international health care infrastructures, we need a comprehensive playbook to address these global health pandemics and ensure global health security for future generations.

Detecting, preventing, and responding to Zika will require accelerated research, investments in surveillance systems, and expanded mosquito control, among other activities. But every day we wait to provide the emergency funding necessary to combat Zika is a day closer to the heat of summer when mosquitos begin their blood-searching quest. Every day we wait, Americans are more vulnerable to contracting the virus without a clear national strategy to eradicate the threat.

During the Ebola outbreak, more people were infected and died from the virus than should have because the international community failed to quickly identify and respond to the deadly epidemic. Health systems buckled under the pressure of inadequate resources or knowledge of how to track and treat the disease. American leadership was instrumental in helping to stop the spread of the disease thanks to $5.4 billion in emergency funding but this was a temporary solution when America and the rest of the world deserve a lasting one.

Unlike the two cases of Ebola that were transmitted on American soil, active Zika transmission is on the verge of exploding across America. Although Zika was historically considered a benign virus resulting in mild flu-like symptoms, recent investigations have discovered the alarming connection between the virus and the development of microcephaly, in which an infant is born with a much smaller head size and an underdeveloped brain. Researchers also suspect Zika will make people of all ages more susceptible to developing the autoimmune disorder Guillian-Barré Syndrome, which can cause partial or full paralysis and other neurological issues. Increased incidence of microcephaly or Guillian-Barré will not only devastate individual families, it will also put significant strain on the long-term the health care, education, and social services systems of our nation.

As of early May, there are 503 cases of Zika in the United States, all of which were acquired after travel to an area with active Zika transmission or by a partner who was infected. There is not time to delay the development of a comprehensive strategy to fight this virus, and do so in a manner that establishes a foundation for future protocol against emerging health care threats.

That is why I encouraged the administration to designate a single White House level appointee to coordinate the U.S. policy and interagency Zika effort and liaise with international and domestic partners in the face of this pandemic. The appointment of Ron Klain to coordinate all federal efforts to combat the Ebola crisis was an important success and is effective model to replicate. Such leadership would organize the logistical framework that is necessary to successfully analyze the risk of disease infection, outline the necessary resources, and request timely action by lawmakers about any additional funding needs.

This week, I queried the Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, and Environmental Protection Agency about the country's health care system capacity to prepare for and respond to active Zika transmission on American soil. In my letters, I specifically ask for more information about the use of genetically modified mosquitoes as a potential strategy to reduce Zika virus transmission and the concerns that remain about the effectiveness and safety of the technology.

The international community is once again calling for a united front to a new global health threat. We need to put in place a system that can rapidly mobilize against infectious diseases instead of relying on a fragmented, reactive approach each time a crisis appears. Our lack of an immediate financial response to Zika has already left us at a disadvantage against the inevitable infiltration of the virus here in America. But it's not too late to build a cohesive plan that establishes a permanent system and protocols for when the next health crisis emerges.

Let's appoint a single entity to coordinate a U.S. response to health care epidemics. Let's build a national strategy against communicable diseases by investing in our agencies with the capacity to develop tests, vaccine candidates, and educational tools. Let's strengthen communication and collaboration with our international partners so that we truly are ready to detect, prevent, and respond to Zika and the next threat. Let us not wait until the next global health crisis to develop a lasting solution that reinforces global health security for decades to come.

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