Will budget cuts help spread deadly MERS virus in US?

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Public health advocates are worried that budget cuts are hampering efforts to contain pandemics such as the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

The National Association of County and City Health Officials says more than 50,000 local and state health jobs have been cut since 2008 as local governments reduced budgets because of falling tax revenue during the recession.

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“This does represent vulnerabilities for health departments in response to emerging viruses like MERS-[coronavirus],” said Jack Hermann, senior adviser at the association.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has seen its core budget cut from $6.7 billion in 2011 to $5.8 billion in 2013, according to the Campaign for Public Health Foundation.

And in 2014, the Obama administration proposed cutting the CDC budget to $5.4 billion.

“It’s troubling and it makes me nervous when you think of things like MERS coming over the border,” said Karl Moeller, the foundation’s executive director.

He argues that the budget cuts will make it tougher for health agencies to control the spread of a pandemic.

“You can put a nice face on budget cuts and billions of dollars [in savings] and it sounds good but …there aren’t people at the gates to make sure this stuff doesn’t spread.”

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spokesman Tait Sye says while the CDC’s core budget request for 2015 is $5.4 billion, adding other funding sources such as the Vaccine for Children program and elements of ObamaCare actually bring that number to $11.1 billion.

“It’s not quite accurate to look at the core budget and jump to the conclusion on MERS [preparedness],” he said.

Sye said the agency has asked for increases in programs in its core budget that could help the CDC tackle MERS. They include $45 million more for its Global Health Security Initiative to help prevent new diseases crossing into the U.S. and $55 million more for its Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases program to help detect and characterize new pathogens.

On the other hand, HHS has also requested a cut of almost $54 million for the CDC’s Public Health Preparedness and Response program that trains healthcare workers around the country to prepare for threats such as MERS.

“At this stage, HHS is confident that CDC can respond to the current MERS situation with its existing resources and is closely monitoring this situation,” Sye said.

MERS is particularly troubling to public health officials because it has killed about a third of its victims. That’s much worse than sever acute respiratory syndrome, which was fatal to about 10 percent of its victims in 2003, when 773 people died after contracting the disease.

So far, only two cases of MERS in the United States have been found, but those incidents have alarmed lawmakers enough to call for hearings.

“We have improved our capability to respond to disease outbreaks in the decade since the emergence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS),” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter last month to Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) “But with 80 percent of the world's nations still unprepared to deal with new pandemics, more can and should be done.”

MERS is a respiratory disease that emerged in the Middle East in 2012 and is caused by a coronavirus similar to SARS. Like SARS, MERS has no vaccine or cure. The World Health Organization has so far confirmed 536 cases of MERS, and 145 people who contracted the disease have since died.

Thomas Skinner, a CDC spokesman, said some funding cut through automatic budget cuts known as sequestration has been restored, but he acknowledged the agency’s budget has been reduced since 2011.

“The CDC works 24/7 to protect our nation’s health and we do what we need to do with what we have,” Skinner said. If the CDC’s coffers start drying up, he said, the agency will just have to come up with “creative and innovative” ways to continue with its mission.

After the first case of MERS was detected in Indiana, the agency initiated protocols similar to during the 2003 SARS outbreak and activated its Emergency Operations Center. 

Under the center’s oversight the CDC officers from around the country have convened to track down anybody who may have come into contact with the MERS carriers and test them for the disease.

The CDC also takes actions to prevent the spread of diseases like MERS in other countries, because its spread overseas can lead to new cases in the U.S.

Skinner says the CDC is asking for $45 million in its fiscal 2015 budget to pay for the Global Health Security Initiative which would be spent on 10 countries to help their healthcare systems “ramp up their ability to detect outbreaks when they occur and move quickly to stop them which ultimately benefits us here in the United States.”

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