The Obama administration on Thursday announced a new worldwide effort prevent and fight infectious diseases, including natural pandemics, biological warfare, and diseases that make a resurgence in the wake of environmental disasters.
The World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the U.S. Departments of State, Defense, and Agriculture will all be involved with the new initiative, as will than two-dozen partner nations that contain over 56 percent of the global population, according to a press release from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
“Global health security is a shared responsibility; no one country can achieve it alone,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a statement. “In the coming months, we will welcome other nations to join the United States and the 26 other countries gathered here in Washington and in Geneva, as we work to close the gaps in our ability to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats.”
Public health experts have raised concerns that the world remains unprepared to tackle an infectious disease catastrophe, such as rapidly mutating influenza strains and antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.” Despite the rise of these pathogens, no major new antibiotics have been developed in at least 25 years. The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), which launched a “10×20″ initiative to develop 10 new bacteria-busting drugs by the year 2020, believe they will fall far short of their goals.
Regional conflicts and natural disasters can also propagate the rapid spread of diseases — including ones that are on their way to eradication. Biologists warned that disasters like Hurricane Sandy can lead to the proliferation of diseases through flooding sewage systems and displaced rats. War-torn Syria saw a resurgence of polio due to a combination of environmental destruction that allowed dormant pathogens to emerge and mass migration by refugees.
Stopping pandemics in their tracks can be particularly difficult in conflict regions and developing nations that lack adequate public health infrastructures. But according to the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), most states in America aren’t ready to take on a public health emergency, either. In fact, most states receive a failing grade on their emergency preparedness plans, and just 16 states and the District of Columbia scored at least 60 percent on preparedness.
“There are many components of public health response that we need to strengthen,” wrote Tom Inglesby, the head of the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, in the RWJF report. “For example, for some time, our vaccination programs were among the strongest in the world. but, in recent years, we are struggling with falling vaccination rates.”
President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget will contain $45 million in new funding for the anti-infectious disease effort, according to federal officials. The worldwide partnership plans to tackle disease prevention with an all-of-the-above approach that includes developing nations’ health infrastructure, improving medical records, and undertaking immunization campaigns.