Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge penned an op-ed published Tuesday in USA Today that warned the measles outbreak is using resources that could be vital should the United States face even more serious threats such as a disease pandemic or a bioterrorism attack.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on Monday that 555 cases of measles had been confirmed in 20 states — an outbreak only second to the highest number of cases reported in 2014 when 667 cases were reported for the entire year.
The disease was officially eliminated in the United States in 2000 and its reemergence in recent years is connected to global travel and the non-vaccinated population.
Lieberman and Ridge’s commentary begins with some chilling statistics:
A devastating infectious disease pandemic could kill more people than nuclear war. Just 100 years ago, the Spanish flu killed 50 to 100 million people. Life-threatening diseases continue to place us at great risk. Ten years ago, it was H1N1 influenza. Today, it is the measles.
The authors noted that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency because of the high rate of measles infections in his state:
This reemergence of measles teaches us two things. First, our public health system needs additional resources if it is to control the occurrence and spread of disease throughout the nation.
Second, since local governments — including New York City — are having to spend their limited public health resources to contain diseases like measles, they will not be sufficiently prepared for large-scale biological events such as a bioterrorist attack or an infectious disease pandemic. If measles draws down New York’s resources now, the city will be less able to withstand the next major biological event. Devastation could be vast and swift, followed quickly by an impact on the national economy that we cannot afford.
The commentary includes information about a report produced by a panel they co-chaired, the Holding the Line on Biodefense: State, Local, Tribal and Territorial Reinforcements Needed.
“We found that basic public health preparedness, detection, response and recovery infrastructure varies widely throughout the United States, meaning that the entire nation could be at higher risk for biological events,” the authors wrote. “Localities struggling with diseases are immediately vulnerable, but so, too, are those who live in bordering states and close-by territories.”
Lieberman and Ridge compared fighting these kinds of health battles to war.
“We need a strategy to fight that war, which means the federal government needs to get on with the business of implementing the National Biodefense Strategy that our panel recommended four years ago, and which the Trump administration issued last fall,” the authors wrote.
Lieberman and Ridge also called for the establishment of an emergency medical system, assessment of “real-time pharmacy readiness,” making hospitals prepared to respond to everything from “naturally occurring outbreaks” to “large-scale biological attacks,” development of laboratory networks, and increased funding for public health emergency readiness, response, and recovery.
“We also need state, local, tribal, territorial and federal elected officials to make addressing the biological threat before events occur one of their highest priorities,” the authors wrote.
Lieberman and Ridge called the measles outbreak “particularly troubling” because of the availability of a safe and effective vaccine to prevent it.
“We cannot afford to ignore the lessons that measles, Ebola, pandemic influenza, plague, Zika, and other diseases have been teaching us — and continue to teach us — about our vulnerabilities,” the authors wrote.
Or, they warned, “those vulnerabilities to biological events could overcome our national ability to respond and recover.”
Now is the time, they concluded, to prepare for “what we know will one day come.”
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