Communication Will Make All the Difference in Future Health Crises

Bill Frist writes for Forbes:

“During the Ebola epidemic this fall, I was reminded of the chaos and fear we felt in the Senate in 2001. When the first anthrax letter was opened in the office of Majority Leader Tom Daschle, no one really even understood what anthrax was, much less how it was contracted, transmitted, or the disease’s natural history. As a result, it was days before a plan for evacuation, testing, and treating exposures was implemented. We had no mechanism for a coordinated and controlled response to a major health emergency.

Thirteen years later, I am afraid we were just as unprepared. News that the first Ebola-infected doctor was returning home for treatment resulted in outrage about the potential threat, and calls for a West Africa travel ban. Given the rarity of Ebola, the public lacked general knowledge of the disease. Relevant governmental agencies failed to adequately disseminate information, and hospitals and healthcare workers didn’t know how to contain and treat infected patients. Soon, two Texas nurses became infected. It wasn’t until eighteen days after the first case of Ebola was diagnosed in the U.S., that the Obama administration appointed an ‘Ebola Czar.’

The situation on the ground in West Africa was just as chaotic. People refused to believe the disease even existed, instead believing those providing aid were actually trying to harm or take away their family members. Burial practices raised cultural barriers to containment, and a general distrust of Western medicine that we have been contending with since the onset of the AIDs epidemic overshadowed relief efforts.

The key to being prepared when the next health crisis arrives—and it will—is coordination and communication. We have the technology and the tools. The next step is to implement a preparedness agenda that will ensure the public, healthcare providers, and first responders are well-informed, and the agencies of authority are speaking with one voice. The agenda needs three major components.”

The three components:

  • Clear person of authority
  • Designated health-care force trained to handle bioterrorism and infectious diseases
  • Data infrastructure designed to share critical information in a crisis


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