Preparing for the next pandemic

Here in this publication, we've often written about the threat posed by healthcare-acquired cases of MRSA or C. diff., ugly bugs whose incidence in patients seems poised to grow dramatically unless the industry pulls a complete turnaround. Of course, the smartest minds in the clinical and research communities are devoting much effort to addressing these threats, and in some cases have already met with great success in slashing infection rates for these bugs. However, it seems we may not be prepared for a massive outbreak of other bugs that have crept into the U.S. as travelers come and go.

A look at a list compiled by NIAID offers a glimpse at re-emerging pathogens that haven't been common in the U.S. for decades or longer, along with newly-established pathogens that have migrated here as travelers bring them back to our shores. The NIAID list includes scary invaders like the West Nile Virus, hepatitis C, multi-drug resistant TB and diseases like yellow fever, which seem like ancient history to Gen Xers like myself. These, too, are killers that could themselves impose a high death toll if there were a major outbreak, warns the Trust for America's Health.

What does the Trust suggest we do? Two things, largely: It works with global leaders to prepare for outbreaks of such emerging diseases, and it gives more federal funds to researchers working in the field. I'm assuming these recommendations also assume that federal, state and local authorities get involved in such planning, too--and if so, these sound like a perfectly sensible approach.

That said, however, I'd go a step further and work much harder on our facilities' ability to treat victims if a large-scale outbreak were actually to take place. State and federal authorities have repeatedly made the point, as have watchdog groups, that our healthcare system isn't ready to deal with a large natural disaster or outbreak of this kind, but to my knowledge, little money has come in from governments to help healthcare providers prepare other than for "brand name" disasters like anthrax exposure or bird flu.

Regardless, let us hope that we can address these emerging threats quickly and well. Most of us reading this publication probably can't remember the last time a deadly pathogen hit a large swatch of the U.S. and killed large numbers of people (myself included), but if you want a scare, Google "Influenza Pandemic of 1918" and read some descriptions of what happened back then. Then pour that sense of fear and outrage into preparing for the next pandemic battle. Like it or not, it seems to be on the way. - Anne