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Roadmaps Out of Fantasyland: RWJF’s Outbreaks Report and the National Health Preparedness Security Index

Jan 30, 2015, 5:47 PM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

Outbreaks 2014

“When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras,” the late Theodore Woodward, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, cautioned his students in the 1940s. Woodward’s warning is still invoked to discourage doctors from making rare medical diagnoses for sick patients, when more common ones are usually the cause.

And while many Americans have worried about contracting Ebola—in viral terms, a kind of “zebra”—more commonplace microbial “horses,” such as influenza and measles viruses, continue to pose far greater threats. For instance, a large multistate measles outbreak has been traced to Disneyland theme parks in California—while this year’s strain of seasonal flu has turned out to be severe and widespread.

One obvious conclusion is that many microbes remain a harmful health menace, expected to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans this year. Another—speaking of Disneyland—is that much of America appears to live in a kind of fantasyland, thinking that it is protected against infectious disease.

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The Best Defense is a Strong Offense: Strengthening Our Nation’s Outbreak Preparedness

Dec 22, 2014, 5:08 PM, Posted by Paul Kuehnert

Outbreaks 2014

In the shadow of this year’s Ebola outbreak, the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released a new report, Outbreaks: Protecting Americans from Infectious Diseases.

The report finds that while significant advances have been made in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from emergencies, gaps in preparedness remain and have been exacerbated as resources have been cut over time.

On the eve of the report’s release, I spoke with Jeffrey Levi, PhD, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health to get his thoughts on today’s preparedness landscape—think, Ebola—what to do about shrinking budgets and growing infectious disease threats, and where to go from here.

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Ebola as an Instrument of Discrimination

Nov 21, 2014, 1:00 PM, Posted by Allison Aiello

Jennifer Schroeder, Stephanie M. DeLong, Shannon Heintz, Maya Nadimpalli, Jennifer Yourkavitch, and Allison Aiello, PhD, MS, professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program. This blog was developed under the guidance of Aiello’s social epidemiology seminar course.

Allison Aiello Allison Aiello

Ebola is an infectious disease that the world has seen before in more moderate outbreaks in Africa. As the devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa has taken a global turn, fear, misinformation and long-standing stigma and discrimination have acted as major contributors to the epidemic and response. Stigma is a mark upon someone, whether visible or invisible, that society judgmentally acts upon. Ebola has become a significant source of stigma among West Africans and the Western world.

In many ways, the source of this discrimination can be traced back to the legacy of colonialism and the western approach to infectious disease response in Africa. The history of foreign humanitarian aid has sometimes dismissed cultural traditions and beliefs. As a consequence, trust in westerners has eroded and has been compounded by a disconnect between western humanitarian aid approaches and a lack of overall infrastructure investment on the part of African national health systems. This is apparent in the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Some don’t actually think that Ebola exists; instead they believe that it is a hoax carried out by the Western world. All of these factors are facilitating the rapid spread of the disease.

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Health Care Workers Primed to Lead Global Response to Ebola

Oct 28, 2014, 10:00 AM

Timothy Landers, PhD, CNP, and Jason Farley, PhD, MPH, CRNP, are Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholars. In his work, Landers focuses on the epidemiology and prevention of antibiotic-resistant infections, including the use of hand hygiene as a means of prevention. Farley evaluates treatment outcomes in multi-drug resistant infections including tuberculosis (TB) and Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in patients with HIV, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa.

Timothy Landers Timothy Landers

The recent outbreak of Ebola virus in West Africa is a stark reminder that we live in a globally connected world and that outbreaks can occur without warning. As infection prevention specialists, we are acutely aware of the risks health care workers face in caring for the public, both now and in times of relatively less chaos.

The good news is that despite media reports, nurses, physicians, infection prevention specialists and other health care workers are in an ideal position to lead the global response to this disease.

Our experience with measures to address hospital-acquired infections—isolation precautions, hand hygiene, contact tracing and public health measures—are also the same methods necessary to contain the spread of Ebola.  

Jason Farley (smaller) Jason Farley

Building on experience addressing these infections, along with recognition of the differences in Ebola virus transmission, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) regularly updates the guidelines and is currently recommending enhanced versions of isolation precautions, including enhanced standard precautions, contact precautions, and droplet precautions. 

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The Impact of Seasonal Birth-Rate Fluctuations on Measles, Other Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

Jul 15, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by Audrey Dorélien

Audrey Dorélien, PhD, is a 2012-2014 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholar studying demography, infectious diseases, and maternal and child health.

Audrey Dorélien

Reoccurring outbreaks of measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases are a major killer of children, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2012, more than 226,000 cases of measles were reported worldwide, with a little less than half of those in Africa.[1] For the World Health Organization to meet its global measles eradication goal and implement more effective supplemental vaccination programs, public health officials will need a better understanding of the mechanism driving seasonal and episodic outbreaks.

Infectious disease ecologists have demonstrated the importance of human demography, and in particular the influence of the birth rate on the dynamics of acute childhood immunizing (ACI) diseases. For instance in London, in the few years prior to 1950, the city experienced annual measles epidemics, but the dynamics changed to biennial epidemics as a result of a decline in the birth rate between 1950 and 1968.[2] How can the birth rate influence disease outbreaks? An outbreak can only occur when the fraction of the susceptible population exceeds a critical threshold. In the case of ACI disease, the majority of the susceptible population are young children; therefore the birth rate influences the rate at which the pool of susceptibles is replenished.

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Faces of Public Health: Esther Chernak, Drexel University School of Public Health

Apr 18, 2014, 1:45 PM

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The Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication (CPHRC) at the Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia recently re-launched DiversityPreparedness.org, a clearinghouse of resources and an information exchange portal to facilitate communication, networking and collaboration to improve preparedness, build resilience and eliminate disparities for culturally diverse communities across all phases of an emergency. The site had originally been developed by Dennis Andrulis, now at the Texas Health Institute, and Jonathan Purtle, who co-writes a blog on public health for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

>>Bonus Links:

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Esther Chernak, MD, MPH, the head of CPHRC, about the re-launched site and her work in preparedness.

NewPublicHealth: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to lead the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication.

Esther Chernak: I’m an infectious disease physician by training and pretty much have been working in public health since I finished my infectious disease fellowship in 1991 at the University of Pennsylvania. I started working in the Philadelphia Department of Public Health in its city clinic system doing HIV/AIDS care, and then became the Clinical Director of HIV Clinical Programs for the health centers back in the early ’90s when the epidemic was obviously very different. I then moved to working in infectious disease epidemiology as a staff doctor in the acute communicable disease control program and was involved in infectious disease surveillance and outbreak investigations for a number of years.

Then in 1999, I took a job with the City Health Department in what was then called bioterrorism preparedness. That was the time when major cities in the country were just beginning to be funded to do bioterrorism response plans. Groups that were involved in bioterrorism preparedness recognized relatively quickly that despite the fact that we were dealing with planning for novel strains of influenza and pandemic preparedness and SARS and smallpox, we were also dealing with many, many really significant infectious disease outbreaks, and then ultimately non-infectious disease related issues that had huge impacts on public health, such as earthquakes and hurricanes. Those links helped prepare me for my role at the Center.

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FDA’s Role in Disaster Preparedness: Q&A with Brooke Courtney

Apr 9, 2014, 2:07 PM

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was a partner agency for last week’s Preparedness Summit in Atlanta. NewPublicHealth spoke with Brooke Courtney, Senior Regulatory Counsel in the FDA Office of Counterterrorism and Emerging Threats, about how the agency plans for disasters it hopes never occur. Previously, Courtney was the Preparedness Director at the Baltimore City Health Department and in that role oversaw all of the public health preparedness and response activities for Baltimore City.

NewPublicHealth: What did you speak about at the Summit last week?

Brooke Courtney: FDA views the summit as an unparalleled opportunity each year to engage with stakeholders at the state, local and federal levels—to share with them updates from the federal side and also for us to get feedback from them about challenges and successes. We engage with stakeholders on a regular basis, but this is really the meeting where the largest number of people involved in preparedness come together, and it’s a great opportunity to see people face-to-face.

We feel really fortunate to have been able to take part in the summit for the past few years. For this year’s summit FDA served on the Planning Committee and also participated in the medical countermeasure policy town hall with federal colleagues from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the national security staff, all of whom we work with closely.

Another thing that we like to do at the summit each year is to give a more in-depth update through a session with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services (HHS) legal counsel on the authorities that we have that we use related to the emergency use of medical countermeasures during emergencies. This year’s session was especially exciting for us because it was an opportunity for us to discuss with stakeholders some new authorities that were established in 2013 to enhance preparedness and response flexibility.

For example, we can now clearly issue emergency use authorizations in advance of emergencies, which is really a critical medical countermeasure tool for preparedness purposes. Through these flexibilities, for example, we’ve issued three emergency use authorizations in the past year for three different in-vitro diagnostic tests to address the emerging threats of H7 and 9 influenza and MERS-CoV.

NPH: What are the key responsibilities the FDA has in helping to prepare the United States for possible disasters?

Courtney: As an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the FDA, at its core, is a public health agency. FDA’s mission is to protect and promote public health in a number of critical ways. We’re responsible for regulating more than $1 trillion in consumer goods annually, ranging from medical products such as drugs and vaccines to tobacco and food products.

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A New Way of Looking at Health

Feb 18, 2014, 3:58 PM, Posted by Andrea Ducas, Thomas Goetz

Putting outbreaks of disease into context “Putting outbreaks of disease into context” via VizHealth.org. The VizHealth site and the associated content are available under GNU Lesser General Public License version 3.0 (LGPL-3.0) and Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States licenses.

It’s not always easy to think in statistics.

While that statement might seem obvious, applying that knowledge when it comes to health and health care is anything but.

Think, for example, about your last visit to the doctor. (Doctors, put on your patient hats and bear with us.) In the first couple of minutes, you (we hope) had your blood pressure, weight, and other vital signs checked. You might have also talked about changes you could make—like exercising more or quitting smoking—and how they might decrease your risk of developing a chronic disease or help you live longer.

As a patient, all of this information is valuable, but it is not often meaningful or actionable: what does a systolic blood pressure of 175 actually mean? Exercising regularly might bring my risk for diabetes down, but by how much? And what does that difference translate to for me?

There are lots of ways to answer these questions, but up until recently there hasn’t been much clarity at all when it comes to how to communicate those answers effectively. That’s why we’re so excited to announce the launch of our newest project, Visualizing Health.

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Outbreaks and Pandemics: What’s Next?

Dec 20, 2013, 4:46 PM

file MERS-CoV

For “Outbreak Week” we’ve already covered the deadliest pandemics in human history. But which outbreaks could be around the corner? Outbreaks: Protecting Americans from Infectious Diseases, 2013, the new report from Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, lays out a few possibilities on which infectious diseases may pose the more serious threats in the future. Here are the greatest threats to the United States, according to Tom Inglesby, MD, Chief Executive Officer and Director of the UPMC Center for Health Security.

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)
Spread across 12 countries, the virus has killed almost 40 percent of the people it’s infected. And while it may currently be confined to one region of the world, the high level of air travel between the Middle East and the United States increase the chance that it could find its way into the country, according to Inglesby, who said “we still don’t have a good handle on how it spreads, and there is no treatment for it or vaccine against it.”

Novel influenza virus
A new flu strain that, like the seasonal flu, is far reaching, but which would have a “far higher mortality rate.” Recent examples of major flu pandemics include the 2009 H1N1 outbreak; recent studies indicate the swine flu may have killed more than 200,000 people. The new H7N9 is also notable because of its high mortality rate.

Accident involving a lethal engineered virus
With scientists experimenting on viruses — enhancing their lethality or ability to spread — the risk grows of an accident releasing an engineered virus into the population.

Tuberculosis
It’s the most common infectious disease in the world and drug-resistant strains are only making the matter worse. “The level of drug resistance is growing and coping with this needs to be a real priority,” said Inglesby.

Antibiotic resistance
Not a pathogen, but a reason why pathogens could become even more dangerous. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking steps to combat this growing issue, including new regulations on antimicrobial use in food animals and new restrictions on antibacterial soaps.

Deliberate biological threats
A biological attack, whether from another nation or as a terrorist act, could cause not only severe illness and death, but also communication problems that would hinder the ability of public health departments to respond.

Mosquito-borne illness
Climate change is making this already existing problem even greater—with the regional climate shifts, places that haven’t had to deal with mosquito-based threats are now seeing them swarm in because of the warmer weather. Notable examples include the West Nile Virus and Dengue Fever. “We need to reinvigorate our strategy for mosquito control and the infectious diseases that come with mosquitoes.

>>Follow our complete coverage of Outbreak Week and join the conversation on Twitter with #outbreakweek.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.

In Case of Emergency, Follow Twitter

Dec 20, 2013, 1:50 PM

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How does public health take care of the communities it serves during a foodborne illness or infectious disease outbreak? Through a series of sophisticated steps, most choreographed long before an emergency occurs. Every minute of every day, U.S. and global health experts monitor reports that could indicate a disease or foodborne illness outbreak, as well as review samples of food, water, soil and other resources to detect outbreaks. Some of the steps are well laid out and public; others, such as those monitored by the Department of Homeland Security—watchful for terror attacks on food and water supplies—are hidden from view, but supremely vigilant.

Other examples of outbreak preparedness activities:

  • Each year the American Public Health Association updates its Control of Communicable Diseases manual, and adds updates as needed to the manual’s mobile platforms.
  • Outbreak guidance for new public health officers, as well as refreshers for veterans, are provided by public health official member associations such as the National Association of County and City Health Officials and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
  • New public health officers are also invited to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for an orientation that includes outbreak guidance.

No, health officials can’t know whether an outbreak might occur next week or next month—or never—and whether it’s going to be a new strain of flu, or tainted ground beef sold at multiple food outlets. But by having a set of continually reviewed steps for alerting the public—and keeping them up to date with real-time guidance—targeted advice for any outbreak can be quickly assessed and disseminated.

Health agencies typically share information and best practices with local and state health departments through conference calls and alerts throughout a crisis. And, with the explosion of social media, just about all health departments continually add communications channels for the people they serve. For example, health officials in Montgomery County, Texas, this week are keeping the public informed about an illness outbreak that may turn out to be a severe form of flu, through dedicated channels that include a telephone hotline and its Facebook page. Read the wealth of posts on preparedness on NewPublicHealth to see the many avenues health departments take to keep residents continually informed when an outbreak occurs.

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