Public Health


The U.S. is spearheading an international effort to set up a new early warning system for disease outbreaks and potentially dangerous pathogens. The network would track new diseases and, it's hoped, contain organisms that could be used in bio-warfare and terrorist attacks.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The Global Health Security agenda brings together 26 countries, the World Health Organization and several other international organizations to try to make the world safer from emerging diseases and biological threats. On the U.S. side, the initiative involves the military, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and the CDC.

TOM FRIEDEN: We want to make sure that we do everything we can to prevent emerging organisms from becoming outbreaks, and outbreaks from becoming epidemics.

BEAUBIEN: Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says the U.S. and the world are at greater risk today than ever before from biological organisms. Bird flu can spread rapidly out of Asia. Ebola can emerge out of central Africa. Totally drug-resistant staph infections can sweep through hospital wards.

FRIEDEN: In today's globalized world, an outbreak anywhere is a threat everywhere. Viruses are only a plane ride away.

BEAUBIEN: This is not just being approached from a medical perspective. On a conference call with reporters, Laura Holgate from President Obama's National Security Council said emerging diseases are a real threat to the United States. Holgate is the senior director at the council for weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and threat reduction.

LAURA HOLGATE: The trade connectivity around the world means that disease threats spread faster than ever before. And this causes not only loss of life but also serious economic losses and, you know, ultimately, instability from a security perspective.

BEAUBIEN: She says the Obama administration has been concerned that many other countries don't have the capacity to monitor potential bio-hazards and emerging diseases.

HOLGATE: In 2012, we were really struck by the reality that 80 percent of the countries did not meet the World Health Organization deadline to be prepared for disease threats.

BEAUBIEN: In a world where viruses and other biological agents don't respect national borders, she says the U.S. can't do this alone. The new initiative establishes a framework so that hopefully all the partner countries will be able to quickly detect the next plague. It sets standards for national laboratories and outlines the diagnostic tools they need to confront the potential biohazards of the 21st century.

The countries also commit to creating Emergency Operation Centers that can respond within two hours to an outbreak or other crisis. And all the countries agree to link data from this new global bio-surveillance network through the World Health Organization.

The Obama administration is committing an additional $45 million to the CDC's budget to help low-income countries participate in the network. The money will mainly go to improve surveillance systems, update diagnostic equipment and train staff. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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