The future of the Affordable Care Act. The immigration ban. Continued protests. Battles with the media. Every day brings new challenges for the Trump Administration. These topics and events grab headlines, but there is another issue important to our national security that has not made the headlines — emergency preparedness.
Every recent administration has faced a public health emergency early in their tenure: The Oklahoma City bombing, the terror attacks of Sept. 11 and subsequent anthrax attacks, 2012’s Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and 2009’s H1N1 outbreaks, the list goes on. Each administration’s ability to handle an emergency and the response can become one of the defining moments of their legacy.
Many of these recent emergencies have been infectious disease outbreaks. These type of events aren’t solely a matter of public health or even a challenge of public/private sector collaboration, but of national security. We are lucky as a country to have had smaller, more contained outbreaks in recent memory, but when a country experiences a widespread outbreak, day-to-day life can come to a screeching halt.
Government resources will be redirected from other areas, including national security, to contain and eradicate the outbreak. Among the seven public health threats that the (CDC) identified as potential focus areas in 2017, rapid response to outbreaks and global health security are seen as high priority for emergency response organizations, like Healthcare Ready.
We are encouraged that the White House’s proposed budget outline for fiscal year 2018 establishes a new Federal Emergency Response Fund. This is an important first step to ensure officials have the resources needed to rapidly respond to public health outbreaks.
However, the current budget does not provide guidance on how large this fund is, or if it will cover the full breadth of critical public health preparedness and response activities. In addition, the Federal Emergency Response Fund would fall under the scope of HHS, which faces a 17.9 percent cut under the President’s proposed budget. There is much work to be done to guarantee that emergency response funding is adequate and supports the full breadth of critical public health preparedness and response activities.
The other component to safeguarding Americans during an infectious disease outbreak is to ensure that medical countermeasures (MCMs) such as diagnostic tests, vaccines, and treatments against our most urgent threats are available when we need them the most.
The public health and healthcare communities must coordinate with policy makers to ensure that public health preparedness and MCM development are top national health security priorities. MCM products have no commercial marketplace; therefore, it is critical that the Federal government has policies in place to adequately incentivize MCM research and development and to stockpile these products in adequate quantities to ensure an effective response. Without a strong and enduring commitment from the Federal government, the MCM development pipeline will diminish leaving the nation vulnerable.
Developing safe and effective MCMs is an extraordinarily challenging and risky endeavor. It requires long-term commitment and a significant amount of resources to get products through the development cycle and to sustain innovation.
This is why it is critical that we take the time now to assess our most pressing national and global public health risks and implement a preparedness strategy that prioritizes the development MCMs to mitigate those risks in advance of an outbreak — because once the outbreak hits, it is too late.
Congress and the new Administration must renew their focus on national health security to ensure we are adequately prepared to respond to outbreaks and public health emergencies. This includes the creation of, and adequate funding for, the Federal Emergency Response Fund and a commitment to developing MCMs. It is incumbent upon all stakeholders to ensure that our policy makers understand the urgency and have access to the information they need. We must be unified and committed as a country to protect ourselves against the next outbreak.
Emily Lord, M.P.A., is the Executive Director of Healthcare Ready. She provides strategic guidance and oversight to programs that build community health resilience in times of disaster or pandemic outbreaks, including creating partnerships with the private-sector medical supply chain, as well as public health NGOs and local, state and federal government agencies. Find her on Twitter: @HCR_Emily.
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