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Extreme Weather, Extreme Outbreaks, and Extreme Science-based Preparedness and Response

Categories: General, Natural Disasters, Preparedness, Response

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the news media has increased discussion and debate about what needs to be done in the future to better prepare our country for emergencies. Whether it’s another superstorm or the next H1N1, disasters are inevitable.

Last year, 11 disasters surpassed $1 billion in losses each, including Superstorm Sandy and  Hurricane Isaac. Tornadoes across the Great Plains, Texas, and the Southeast and Ohio Valley and introduced us to the cool term “derecho.” Some experts link these and other severe weather disasters to climate change. According to NOAA, the average temperature in 2012 for the contiguous United States was 3.2 degrees above normal and a full degree higher than the previous warmest year recorded.

Weather is not the only thing affected by climate. Similarly, the ecologic, social, and microbial factors that drive new and emerging infectious diseases will lead to novel pandemics in the footsteps of HIV/AIDS, influenza, SARS, or healthcare acquired infections. While the world is clearly a safer place, there remain determined individuals who would not hesitate to use biologic, chemical, or radiologic agents for nefarious purposes.

A recent CNN opinion piece on our nation’s level of preparedness made seemingly sound points, but it does not consider the great strides we’ve made in  public health to protect our nation; and it misses a key point we struggle with – how to get individuals involved.

CDC’s public health preparedness program is just one of the federal investments to secure our nation’s health.  This all-hazards program not only works to support capability building in local and state health departments  for both large and low probability events (such as a superstorm or H1N1 pandemic), but also to plan for and address routine public health emergencies ranging from foodborne outbreaks to last year’s meningitis outbreak linked to fungal contamination of steroids used to treat back pain. Key aspects of the agency’s public health preparedness program include:

  • an operations center that works 24/7 to recognize and respond to emergencies;
  • a strategic national stockpile to provide medical countermeasures;
  • oversight and security of some of  the most dangerous pathogens in the world by regulating the laboratories that work on them;
  • the provision of funding and training to states for pre-event planning;
  • a companion program to ensure healthcare preparedness and medical strike teams.

All of these elements were employed in some fashion during the recent response and recovery to Hurricane Sandy, and will continue to be at the ready for future disasters.

Of course, there is more to preparedness than what the federal government can do. The federal government will never be able to appear at your doorstep the moment a crisis happens. And despite what is written in the opinion piece, the federal government does more than sit around and wait to be called upon for help. We help get individuals and communities to consider their role in a disaster and take steps beforehand to create more resilient communities.

In an emergency situation, first responders are slammed with calls for help.  It will likely be up to individuals to be ready. For this reason, it is imperative to be prepared.  The difference between life and death may be in your ability to help yourself and your neighbor immediately after a disaster.

For all the strides we have made building up our public health infrastructure, one major gap remains: How do we compel the public to get involved in emergency preparedness?  In 2013, I would like to see the federal government and our partners in preparedness take more definitive steps in getting the public interested in preparedness and able to understand the realities of emergency response and recovery.

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