By Tom Frieden, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Dr. Tom Frieden is the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The views expressed are his own.
Today marks the Lunar New Year – and the world’s largest annual migration. There will be more than 3.6 billion transit trips within China, in addition to countless international trips. Yet this celebration comes at a time of growing concern about the H7N9 avian influenza virus. And this concern is not unfounded – should this virus change into a form that easily spreads between people, the world’s next pandemic could occur in the next three weeks.
This combination of mass travel and an emerging virus such as this should underscore the connectedness of health security between countries. Of course, H7N9 influenza is just one example of how the health security of all nations, including the United States, depends on the health security of each individual nation. And regardless of where outbreaks occur, stopping them at the source is the most effective and cheapest way to save lives at home and abroad.
Take the case of Isaac Baniyo, who lives in a small village in Uganda. A little over a year ago, his soaring fever and chest pains saw him sent to his community clinic where CDC-trained local healers tested him for plague. He was diagnosed within minutes with a dipstick lab test, and successfully treated for plague with a 10-day course of antibiotics.
Isaac’s is the face of global health security today, a real-life example of the worry and the hope we face.
Plague, like smallpox and Ebola, is a Category A bioterrorism agent that spreads easily and kills more than a third of the people it infects. So imagine a world where we didn’t have trained eyes in villages like the one Isaac lives in. One case of plague could turn into hundreds or thousands, and an isolated local case could quickly become a global disaster.
That’s why it’s critical the United States and CDC are there – in countries on six continents – helping train people who are on the ground to keep their countries and the world safe from infectious disease threats.
Keeping the world safe from potential public health threats of international concern is so important that all 194 Member States of the World Health Assembly committed to compliance with the revised International Health Regulations. The goal is to help the international community prevent, detect, and respond to serious public health risks that have the potential to cross borders and threaten people worldwide.
CDC has committed to assist countries throughout the world with strengthening their national capacity and ability to achieve the goal of the IHR. Today we report on two projects – one in Uganda and one in Vietnam – to improve public health emergency detection and response capacity. Each project has demonstrated the possibilities and potential benefits of creating an emergency operations center, a national laboratory system, and a real-time information system. The time I spent in Uganda last year reviewing the progress of this project was deeply impressive, and will always stay with me as one of the highest impact projects CDC has undertaken in my time as director.
Both Uganda and Vietnam have faced unique health challenges, including multiple Ebola and Marburg hemorrhagic outbreaks, yellow fever in Uganda, and SARS and H5N1 outbreaks in Vietnam. Our successful efforts to enhance disease detection and response in these countries show that such models can work on a global scale. This is especially relevant given continued challenges such as Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and H7N9 influenza.
So, broadly speaking, what are the steps the United States and international community can take to protect the world from infectious disease threats? There are three key actions:
Prevent avoidable catastrophes and epidemics. We can only do this if we have strong systems, policies, and procedures in place in each country.
Detect threats early. This requires real-time disease tracking and effective diagnostics, as well as the ability to identify and collect outbreak specimens and safely and securely transport them to accredited laboratories.
Respond rapidly and effectively. We do this best when we have interconnected emergency operations centers and response capacity ready to spring into action.
It is increasingly clear that the health of other nations has a direct impact on the health of us here in the United States – infectious diseases do not recognize borders. Improving global health security therefore saves American lives while boosting our international partnerships and increasing stability overseas.
And when we invest the time and resources to help other countries protect their own people, we are ultimately helping protect Americans, too.