How ready are we for a public health threat?
Since February, the public has watched the countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and now Mali struggle with a deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus. There are more than 15,000 confirmed cases of Ebola so far in these countries. To date, roughly 5,800 people in West Africa are believed to have died from the virus, including two here in the United States. The severity and scale of this outbreak has challenged the world public health community. In light of what they have seen and read in the news, many Americans and Delawareans have asked an important question: how prepared is our nation to handle a major public health threat?
On Nov. 19, the committee I chair – the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs – tried to answer that question by examining our nation’s response to the ongoing Ebola epidemic and our overall preparedness for other public health threats. The goal of the hearing was to identify lessons learned from our Ebola response and to use those lessons to inform our future response to this disease and others that could threaten our country.
As we learned from our panel of experts, we must have a well-coordinated response at the federal, state and local levels. The Centers for Disease Control and other public health officials must establish clear guidance and protocols so that everyone – from health professionals and first responders to school teachers and moms and dads – knows exactly what to do and what not to do. We must also ensure that our state and local health and emergency response professionals have the training and tools they need to succeed, and also to protect themselves. It’s also essential to have a strong screening process in place at our airports and borders so we can better identify and monitor high-risk travelers. Just as important, we must guarantee the availability of vaccines and other medicines that can treat this virus.
At the hearing, I was also heartened to learn about the dedication and courageous acts of the health care professionals and others that are tackling this deadly disease at home and abroad. These brave men and women are truly looking out for the “least of these” and are to be commended for their work.
Whether it’s the Ebola virus, influenza, or a disease we have yet to hear about, the bottom line is the same: we need to be prepared and ready to respond. Our witnesses made it clear that the steps we are taking now to curb the Ebola epidemic here at home and abroad are showing positive results, and should be applied to combat all public health threats. In other words, we are figuring out what works and trying to do more of it – one of my keys to success for any mission.