Outbreaks: To Prepare for the Worst Day, Focus on Protecting the Nation Every Day

December 17, 2015

December 17, 2015 - Every day in the United States, a baby is vaccinated against a once-deadly disease. Every day, health officials, doctors and labs work together to investigate a foodborne illness and contain an outbreak. Every day, a hospital isolates and treats a patient with a potentially infectious disease. Every day, researchers make progress on a medicine against an emerging infection.

At the same time, every day, we see too many: Americans foregoing lifesaving vaccines; farms, doctors and patients overusing antibiotics, contributing to deadly superbugs; and health departments facing budget cuts leading to laid off staff and a failure to upgrade technologies needed to detect and prevent diseases. 

And, every year, the world sees a new or reemerging infectious disease with the potential to reach pandemic levels.

America’s public health and healthcare system must be better prepared for infectious diseases – both common infections like flu and those that could prove as disastrous as Ebola. To call attention to that need for vigilance, Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published the third edition of a report, Outbreaks: Protecting Americans from Infectious Diseases. The report finds that the nation ramps up investment and attention when a new threat emerges, but lets our guard down when the threat appears to subside. In the meantime, we never sufficiently address many persistent and deadly problems that could be avoided.

The report provides a snapshot of how well states are doing on measures of infectious disease preparedness, such as vaccine coverage, public health budgeting, laboratory safety, climate change preparedness, and disease surveillance. The report highlights a series of 10 indicators for each state. This year, we found that 28 states and Washington, D.C. scored five or lower out of the 10 key indicators.

Outbreaks also lays out recommendations for policymakers, public health and the healthcare system. To improve the prevention and control of infectious diseases, we must:

  • Increase resources to ensure every state can maintain and modernize basic capabilities – such as epidemiology and laboratory abilities – that are needed to respond to new and ongoing outbreaks;
  • Update disease surveillance to be real-time and interoperable across communities and health systems to better detect, track and contain disease threats;
  • Incentivize the development of new medicines and vaccines, and ensure systems are in place to effectively distribute them when needed;
  • Decrease antibiotic overuse and increase vaccination rates;
  • Improve and maintain the ability of the health system to be prepared for a range of potential threats – such as an influx of patients during a widespread outbreak or the containment of a novel, highly infectious organism that requires specialty care;
  • Strengthen efforts and policies to reduce healthcare-associated infections; and
  • Take strong measures to contain the rising hepatitis C and HIV epidemics and other sexually transmitted infections, particularly among young adults.

We must get down to the business of preventing and controlling ongoing, disruptive infectious disease threats. If we do that, we’ll not only reduce rates of serious persistent problems, we’ll also be better able to respond when a new outbreak emerges.

Dara Alpert Lieberman, MPP, Senior Government Relations Manager, Trust for America’s Health

Dara Alpert Lieberman is Senior Government Relations Manager at Trust for America's Health. She works with the Director of Government Relations to advance TFAH's agenda with federal, state, and local governments. At TFAH, Ms. Lieberman leads the organization’s advocacy around infectious disease prevention, disease surveillance, and strengthening the nation’s public health emergency preparedness and response capabilities.