National

Are we ready for the next health emergency? Uh, not so much

Members of the Alabama National Guard hazardous materials team exit the Montgomery Municipal Court building in Montgomery, Ala., Jan. 5, 2010. The hazardous materials team was called to the building after an envelope mailed to the facility was found containing a powdered substance. A new report from a public health advocacy group says the nation’s readiness to handle health emergencies is slow, short-term and short on funds.
Members of the Alabama National Guard hazardous materials team exit the Montgomery Municipal Court building in Montgomery, Ala., Jan. 5, 2010. The hazardous materials team was called to the building after an envelope mailed to the facility was found containing a powdered substance. A new report from a public health advocacy group says the nation’s readiness to handle health emergencies is slow, short-term and short on funds. AP

The nation’s response to health emergencies like bio-terror attacks and natural disasters is slow, short-term and underfunded, according to a new report on emergency preparedness.

The Trust for American’s Health, a public health advocacy group, said a lack of ongoing planning and resources left holes in the budgets of other health priority programs – such as for hepatitis C and measles outbreaks –from which money was borrowed but rarely fully restored.

“The current system is not built for ‘readiness’ — to be able to consistently respond in an effective and efficient way when new crises occur,” says the trust in its annual report, “Ready or Not? Protecting the Public from Diseases, Disasters and Bioterrorism.”

It found that many of the upgrades to the bio-defense system made following the 9/11 attacks, the anthrax scare and the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina have been “eroded” in the name of frugality.

The main source for state and local preparedness for health emergencies has been cut by nearly a third ‑ $280 million since 2002 – and hospital preparedness has lost half of its funding‑ $255 million – since 2004.

“It is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ the next emergency will arise,” said Laura Segal, vice president of public affairs for the trust. “ ‘The Ready or Not?’ report shows that the country has been undercutting funding for preparedness for health emergencies, which leaves us offguard when a new threat emerges.”

The report also serves as an annual report card, rating states on how well they meet various indicators of concern and priority, such as access to emergency health care, vaccination rates, public health funding and climate change readiness.

Massachusetts scored the highest, meeting all 10 indicators. Idaho and Alaska were the worst: They met just three. North Carolina and Washington state each met nine. Most states met six or seven.

Among the accomplishments in the fields over the past years were more advanced development of vaccines and a system to develop medical countermeasures more quickly in the face of a growing threat. Improvements in public health staffing also occurred, as did better coordination of emergency operations, and some “limited improvements in medical surge capacity.”

But problems continue with funding for research and the purchase of vaccines and other supplies, real-time bio-surveillance and the development of standards of care for a range of threats, among others.

To underscore the concerns about health security and readiness, the trust noted that scientists at the Emergency Operations Center at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been involved in more than 750 health emergencies in the U.S. and abroad in just the past two years. And every year for the past 30 years, a new contagious disease emerges.

Infectious diseases cost the country $170 billion annually, at a minimum. A pandemic would be far more expensive, and worse.

David Goldstein: 202-383-6105, @GoldsteinDavidJ

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