Measles outbreak drains resources we may need for a future epidemic or bioterrorist attack
A devastating infectious disease pandemic could kill more people than nuclear war. Just 100 years ago, the Spanish flu killed 50 to 100 million people. Life-threatening diseases continue to place us at great risk. Ten years ago, it was H1N1 influenza. Today, it is the measles.
Last week, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency. Measles outbreaks are occurring in New York City and throughout the nation, with case counts rising at an alarming rate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 555 confirmed cases in 20 states so far this year. It is the second-highest total since measles, which is highly contagious, was declared eliminated in the Americas almost two decades ago.
This reemergence of measles teaches us two things. First, our public health system needs additional resources if it is to control the occurrence and spread of disease throughout the nation.
Vaccination (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)
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Second, since local governments — including New York City — are having to spend their limited public health resources to contain diseases like measles, they will not be sufficiently prepared for large-scale biological events such as a bioterrorist attack or an infectious disease pandemic. If measles draws down New York’s resources now, the city will be less able to withstand the next major biological event. Devastation could be vast and swift, followed quickly by an impact on the national economy that we cannot afford.
Entire nation could be vulnerable
In October 2018, the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, which we co-chair, issued a report called Holding the Line on Biodefense: State, Local, Tribal and Territorial Reinforcements Needed. We found that basic public health preparedness, detection, response and recovery infrastructure varies widely throughout the United States, meaning that the entire nation could be at higher risk for biological events. Localities struggling with diseases are immediately vulnerable, but so, too, are those who live in bordering states and close-by territories.
As with any war, we need to get resources and support downrange as quickly as possible to prevent further outbreaks and control the spread of disease. We need a strategy to fight that war, which means the federal government needs to get on with the business of implementing the National Biodefense Strategy that our panel recommended four years ago, and which the Trump administration issued last fall.
We need a lot more. We need a new, better organized, fully funded national EMS system; a better understanding of real-time pharmacy readiness; a stratified hospital system capable of responding to everything from naturally occurring outbreaks to large-scale biological attacks; authorized and fully executed laboratory networks; and increased funding for public health emergency preparedness, response and recovery. We also need state, local, tribal, territorial and federal elected officials to make addressing the biological threat before events occur one of their highest priorities.
Don’t ignore the lessons diseases teach us
The measles outbreak is particularly troubling, because unlike many other infectious disease threats, there is an effective vaccine for measles. Not only should state and local governments continue to strongly advocate for the use of vaccines, families, individuals and civic organizations all have essential roles to play in encouraging their use to mitigate the effects of infectious diseases like measles.
We cannot afford to ignore the lessons that measles, Ebola, pandemic influenza, plague, Zika and other diseases have been teaching us — and continue to teach us — about our vulnerabilities. Eventually, those vulnerabilities to biological events could overcome our national ability to respond and recover. Emergency declarations will not be able to help us then. Let’s do the work today to effectively prepare for what we know will one day come.
Former senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, co-chair the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. Follow them on Twitter: @JoeLieberman and @RidgeGlobal
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