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Report: US unprepared for disease outbreaks despite billions spent

Major gaps exist in the country’s capacity to handle public health crises like Ebola despite massive government spending over the last decade, according to a new report.

Inadequate funding, weak leadership and uneven standards are all putting Americans at risk for infectious diseases, according to an extensive 112-page report by the Trust for America’s Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

“Much of the nation’s approach to fighting infectious disease has not been modernized in decades,” the report warns. “There have been troubling errors, lapses and scrambles to recreate practices and policies that were supposed to have been long considered and well established.”

Nearly half of states received failing scores on the National Health Security Preparedness Index, which measures states’ health spending, vaccination rates, food testing and HIV/AIDS prevention.

The biggest challenge is the lack of funding, according to the report, which describes the national health budget as “insufficient to adequately protect Americans.”

Federal and state governments poured money into public health preparedness in 2001 when faced with bioterrorism threats like anthrax. Much of the funding has since evaporated.

Twenty-two states have slashed their budgets for public health preparedness since 2012, and 17 states made cuts two or more years in a row.

On the federal level, government funding has flatlined or dried up for agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“It is unacceptable that we don’t have adequate, dedicated and consistent funding to support the development pipeline for the most urgent emerging infectious diseases,” Dr. Tom Inglesby, the director of the UPMC Center for Health Security, wrote in the report.

The issue of public health preparedness rocketed into national attention this fall after Ebola was diagnosed with the United States.

As the CDC and NIH moved into overdrive to assuage public fears and prepare hospitals nationwide, the agencies faced criticism for a series of missteps stemming from lack of coordination.

Coordination by the federal government was a key weakness named in the report, which said the federal government “lacks clear, strong leadership” to manage a crisis.

But researchers said antibiotic resistance and infections like enterovirus D68 or pandemic flu could pose more dangers than Ebola, which is relatively difficult to spread.

The report pointed to vaccines as one of the most important barriers to infection.

Still, only 14 states vaccinated at least half of its population for the flu last year. In Nevada, only 36 percent of people received the vaccine.

The report also warns against the politicization of public health, hinting at the harsh measures touted by some lawmakers to control Ebola, such as travel bans and forced quarantines.

“For a time during the fall Ebola response, the commentary on the response became politically charged to the detriment of the overall response,” the researchers wrote.

“Once an outbreak develops a political dynamic, it diverts the attention of those working on the outbreak to managing the politics instead of the crisis.”