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Another Voice: U.S. needs will to prepare for next pandemic

By Dr. Kevin M. Gibas

In 2003 a rare viral disease infected more than 8,000 people and took more than 700 lives across the globe. This condition, called SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, captivated the public as it spread from continent to continent.

In 2009, six years after SARS had faded from the public’s consciousness, another massive pandemic struck. This time it was a novel influenza virus, widely referred to as the H1N1 influenza virus or “swine flu.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the virus was responsible for infecting more than 60 million people and causing more than 12,000 deaths in the United States and between 150,000 and 575,000 deaths worldwide.

More recently, previously foreign pathogens such a Zika and Ebola, which have been responsible for major pandemics in Africa, Asia and Latin America, have surfaced in the United States, grabbing the attention of the American media, politicians and the global health community.

Unfortunately, it is all too common that major disease outbreaks and epidemics captivate the public’s attention and dominate the news cycle for weeks to months but are ultimately forgotten when the immediate threat of the disease or agent diminishes. As a result, the public attention and pressure, as well as funding, to create sustainable strategies for research and outbreak planning also diminishes as attention is turned to the next hot-button issue.

From the anthrax scares of the early 2000s to SARS in 2003 and most recently, Zika and Ebola, the momentum that is gained for research and planning during these outbreaks as a result of the public’s focus and attention on the issue is often lost when the attention on these diseases fades, leaving inadequate funding for research and preparation on what to do if these threats return.

It is not a question of if, but when, a new contagion or a large-scale pandemic will emerge that will test our public health system’s infrastructure. A national lack of infrastructure to deal with such threats, unless addressed on many different levels, could be disastrous when a new pandemic emerges. Ensuring that we are prepared for this next epidemic will require the input and collaboration between health care, public health and government institutions on many different levels.

It will require education and training of medical professionals, including physicians, nurses, emergency medical technicians, as well as first responders. It will also require funding both in the United States and in areas of critical disease burden abroad for disease treatment, vaccine research and the funding to create the infrastructure necessary to respond to large-scale epidemics.

Dr. Kevin M. Gibas, a graduate of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in Buffalo, is a resident in internal medicine at Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

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