Federal government, states unprepared for infectious outbreak

The United States is woefully underprepared for potential future disease outbreaks, according to a new report from the Trust for America's Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Although health officials in the U.S. have spent billions preparing for such scenarios, the report gives half of the states and the District of Columbia failing grades in 10 preparedness categories, including:

  • Maintenance of funding for public health services

  • Speed in testing 90 percent of suspected E. coli cases

  • Vaccinating at least 50 percent of the population for the flu

  • Central line-associated bloodstream infection reduction

  • Emergency laboratory test response time

The highest-performing states were Tennessee, Vermont, Maryland, Virginia and Massachusetts, all of which scored eight out of 10, with Kentucky, Idaho, Kansas, Arkansas, Ohio, Louisiana, Wyoming and New Jersey rounding out the lowest scorers. Moreover, only 15 states have implemented climate change strategies that factor into its effect on the healthcare system.

Insufficient funding has been a major obstacle to better levels of preparedness, according to the report, as 22 states have implemented budget cuts in the domain of public health preparedness since 2012, with 17 states making cuts two or more consecutive years. Funding has plateaued for agencies at the federal level such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Another potential pitfall is public health issues becoming partisan debates, according to the report, as in the case of many elected officials' proposed solutions to Ebola, such as mandatory quarantines and travel bans, which CDC Director Thomas Frieden said in October would likely exacerbate the outbreak in West Africa.

"Infectious disease control requires constant vigilance," the report states. "This requires having systems in place and conducting continuous training and practice exercises. The Ebola outbreak is a reminder that we cannot afford to let our guard down or grow complacent when it comes to infectious disease threats."

To learn more:
- read the report (.pdf)