Flu season this year is spreading like crazy — this could have other bio-threat implications

Flu season this year is spreading like crazy —  this could have other bio-threat implications
© Getty Images

The word is out: it’s an especially bad flu season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that the degree of spread of influenza is close to exceeding the highest levels seen in over a decade. In particular, the disease is hitting the elderly and children hard.

Vaccines are in high demand, hospitals are stressed, and the nation’s public health system as a whole is struggling to meet the demands of a disease for which there are effective medical countermeasures and decades of research, and we know to expect every year. What does this mean about our ability to manage the next big bio threat?

Pandemic disease outbreaks happen: SARS, Ebola, and Zika are just a few examples of naturally occurring diseases that have crossed continents in the past few years.

Historically, infectious diseases like 1918 influenza and smallpox have devastated populations when newly introduced.

Now, advances in biology have made it possible for laboratory synthesis of viruses, which adds to public health concerns because it increases the possibility of someone deliberately introducing a novel pathogen to cause an epidemic.

This year’s flu has been a minor test of our nation’s preparedness and the results have shown that we have work to do. Years of funding cuts to public health departments and hospital preparedness programs have taken their toll, undermining preparedness efforts and pushing experienced practitioners out of this work. It’s clear that Congress needs to act to improve preparedness for the next big outbreak – the lives of Americans depend on it. Fortunately, it has an opportunity to do so right now.

Congress is currently working on the reauthorization of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA), which was first passed in 2006 and reauthorized in 2013. This legislation is required to fund key programs and enable important preparedness efforts. Its reauthorization offers an opportunity to regain lost ground in preparing for the inevitable next pandemic.  The new bill ought to increase support to the Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) and the Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) program to the levels authorized in 2006. These programs help hospitals aid each other in responding to disasters and allow public health departments to build and strengthen their abilities to respond to emergencies. They also provide a baseline level of funding to all states, which is important considering the location of the next big outbreak cannot be predicted.

In addition, the new legislation should establish a disaster response fund for infectious disease emergencies or other sudden health disasters to improve public health’s ability to react to a disaster quickly without waiting for congressional action.

This fund would supplement (and not supplant) preparedness funding during an emergency; would not preclude supplemental emergency funding; and would come with a mechanism to automatically replenish funds. Creating a disaster fund like this would prevent the types of delays we saw in the Zika response, as public health waited for Congress to provide emergency funding.

These programs must also be funded at the authorized levels instead of being shortchanged in the budgeting process. Public health departments and hospitals can’t get ready to meet the challenge of future bio threats if authorized funding is not also appropriated.  

Beyond efforts to prepare for a dangerous domestic outbreak, the United States must maintain its work overseas to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats at their source. Despite our best efforts, diseases travel and they travel quickly.

Policymakers and the research community need to ensure that we know as much as we can about diseases where the first emerge and how to contain and control them at their source, before they reach our shores — an imperative complement to working to get our hospitals and public health departments ready to combat the infectious disease threats of the future. That’s why it is so important that congress provides the necessary funding to support CDC’s work overseas.

This year’s intense flu season shows us all how disruptive a disease outbreak can be to our own everyday lives. It’s easy to take health for granted until you or a loved one are lying in bed, miserable with the flu. In the same way, it would be shortsighted to say that preparedness for the next biological threat is only a concern for future leaders. Let’s not set ourselves up for tragic regrets when the next outbreak happens. Congress can and should act now.

Tara Kirk Sell, PhD and Jennifer Nuzzo, DrPH, are senior scholars at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and faculty at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. This op-ed does not reflect the views of Johns Hopkins University.