Health Threats Are Security Threats
This month, the first case of the Ebola virus appeared in the U.S. The largest outbreak of the virus in history began in West Africa this past summer. The outbreak includes nearly 8400 reported cases and over 4033 deaths as of October 10, 2014. Those numbers tell the tale as to why the US and the world are worried—nearly 1 in 2 people infected die from the virus. For decades, the public health community warned that humanity is overdue for a public health threat like Ebola.
Public health threats become homeland security threats when diseases immobilize the workforce, public safety professionals, and public institutions. In the 20th century alone, disease was the most successful killer. For example, death caused by the 1918 flu pandemic killed more people (50-100 million) than World War I (nearly 37 million).
Pandemics and novel diseases tend to thrive in developing nations because of poor public health infrastructure and healthcare systems and then spread across continents in our increasingly interconnected world. From the initial outbreak, public health workers identify cases and report local outbreaks to state laboratories and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC then works with the pharmaceutical companies and Food and Drug Administration to identify and deploy available treatments to hospitals and public health clinics.
Treatments provide a short term solution to a public health threat. Improving access to care, and water and sanitary infrastructure can increase resilience to outbreak. Long-term prevention comes through sharing information. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, partners as varied as state governors and Sesame Street’s Elmo offered advice for people to ‘cover their cough’ to prevent the spread of the disease. There is no silver bullet for completely preventing disease outbreak, but sharing public health information—the signs of infection, resources available, and precautions to prevent exposing others to a disease—reduces the number of overall cases.
Government agencies must sustain a strategic public messaging campaign. Those messages include practicing good hygiene and making long term healthy life choices. Agencies can also embrace social media and smartphone apps, as the public is increasing reliant upon those platforms. Over time, the public has internalized and trusted public health messages, like ’covering your cough.’ Strategic messaging may diminish the next outbreak, keeping the workforce moving, infrastructure operating, and the nation secure.