To Prevent Pandemics, World Must Focus on Preparedness

The recent appearance of the Zika virus in the Americas has reignited the fear of pandemic disease coming to our shores. While the symptoms of Zika are typically mild -- and the virus has yet to pose a serious threat within the United States -- the potential birth defects associated with Zika virus have once again put the issues of global health and global health security squarely on the front page.

What you should know is President Obama has already taken swift action to respond to the threat of Zika, based on the best science and advice of public health experts with decades of experience. For instance, we know this virus is predominately spread by mosquitos, but recently we have some evidence to suggest it can, on rare occasions, be sexually transmitted. We continue working on limiting the spread of the mosquito that transmits this virus and on a potential vaccine to ultimately stop the spread. We have the very best doctors and scientists in the world working on Zika virus, and will do everything we can to protect the American people.

But while we work closely with our international partners to fight this virus now, President Obama has made enhancing our ability to prevent, detect, and respond to potential pandemic threats a top priority, whether naturally occurring or man-made, since early in 2009. We have initiated an ambitious plan to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria, helped strengthen hospitals' readiness to treat emerging infectious diseases, and conducted groundbreaking research into universal influenza vaccines. Globally, we led the Ebola response in West Africa, launched a Global Health Security Agenda to accelerate the world's ability to counter infectious disease threats, and are ramping up our fight against one of the oldest mosquito-borne scourges on the planet--malaria.

These investments at home and abroad have better prepared us to address infectious diseases that emerge. During the Ebola epidemic, we expanded laboratory capacity in the United States to diagnose Ebola cases. We imposed a health screening and monitoring system for travelers. We built a medevac capability to quickly transport home infected healthcare workers and have vastly improved our hospital preparedness with a nationwide treatment system consisting of regional centers of excellence, specialized treatment centers, and assessment hospitals. And we collaborated with private sector partners on innovative solutions for everything from diagnostics, to treatments, to vaccines. These lessons from Ebola, while they will not eliminate the risks posed by the Zika virus, have raised the level of infectious disease preparedness in the United States.

Our approach is straightforward.

First, we need to treat and target every disease individually. Not all viruses are identical. The Ebola virus is primarily transmitted by human-to-human contact. Zika spreads predominantly through the bite of a particular type of mosquito. Measures that made sense to counter one infectious disease, such as quarantining travelers at the U.S. border, would do little to control Zika. As we combat Zika and whatever threats come next, we must prioritize informed, evidence-based approaches over the instinct to stigmatize or panic. There is much that we still don't know about Zika and without that information, we must strive to make the best decisions we can with the data we have.

Second, we must focus on our frontline health care providers. Our doctors, nurses, and public health professionals are the first to fight the spread of infectious diseases and the first to care for those affected. We should emulate the heroes who fought Ebola in West Africa and in the United States by continuing to educate communities, apply tried-and-tested strategies, and work together to stop outbreaks at the source. That also means advancing health care services--from the ability to provide clinical care, to promoting preventive health, to expanding access to medicines.

Finally, the world needs to implement the Global Health Security Agenda, so that we can better prevent, detect, and respond to biological threats. The Ebola epidemic was a wake-up call for the globe that without robust health systems in vulnerable countries, no country is safe. Accordingly, the world must focus on assisting the most at-risk countries as they build capacity to confront infectious diseases. The U.S. is doing its part by supporting 32 partners in meeting the Agenda's targets, but it will take focused, measurable commitments from all countries to achieve this goal.

The President has directed his team to deploy all available resources to combat the spread of Zika, but ultimately the threat of Zika will recede. The global community cannot allow our attention to public health preparedness to wane with it.