Thanks To Budget Cuts, U.S. Remains Unprepared To Combat Future Public Health Emergencies

Despite numerous public health threats over the past decade — including bioterrorism threats like anthrax attacks, the spread of airborne diseases like the swine flu epidemic, and extreme weather disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy — a new report finds that states across the country still have serious gaps in their emergency preparedness plans.

The Trust for America’s Health report used 10 measures to evaluate states’ public health emergency preparedness, examining indicators such as whether states have met vaccination requirements or whether they have emergency evacuation plans for schoolchildren, and found that just five states currently meet at least eight of those markers. Thirty five states and the District of Columbia fell far short, meeting six or fewer of the 10 key public health indicators.

Only two states have met the CDC’s recommending goal of vaccinating 90 percent of young children for whooping cough. Thirty five states and the District of Columbia don’t have adequate climate change adaptation plans, which would help plan for the health threats that result from extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy. Thirteen states don’t have enough public health staffers available to work around the clock to respond to an emergency outbreak like swine flu. And, as USA Today reports, the authors of the report cite state budget cuts as the biggest reason that states are falling short on these public health initiatives:

One of every five state public health jobs has been cut, the report says; federal funds for state and local preparedness have dropped 38% from 2005 to 2012. […]

“Investments made after Sept. 11, the anthrax attacks and Hurricane Katrina led to dramatic improvements, but now budget cuts and complacency are our biggest threats,” says Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health. “Since then, there have been a series of significant health emergencies, but we haven’t learned that we need to bolster and maintain a consistent level of health emergency preparedness.”

The country has not paid “sufficient” attention, the authors say, to “the everyday threats public health departments and health care providers face repeatedly.” In addition to extreme weather and foodborne illnesses, “we have suffered a deadly rise of West Nile virus, a fungal meningitis outbreak and a resurgence of old diseases we thought were largely conquered — whooping cough and tuberculosis — all in a growing era of antibiotic resistance.”

According to the report, 29 states cut their public health budgets from 2010 to 2012. But it’s not just the disaster preparedness funds that hang in the balance — House Republicans have also threatened to slash funding for disaster relief efforts, and have dragged their feet on authorizing federal funds to help clean up the significant damage that resulted from the recent Superstorm Sandy, despite the serious public health threats that linger in the storm’s wake.

And Kathleen Tierney, the director of the National Hazards Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, warns that the funding situation may be even more dire than it appears on the surface. “This study doesn’t paint a pretty picture,” she told USA Today. “You have to be able to invest in sustaining problems, keep up with emerging problems, keep up with state of the art equipment, and learn what best practices are out there. Even for states that are maintaining their budget, that really means their budget is going down because costs are increasing.”