The April 15 Frontiers looked at ways we can manage disease threats at home and abroad. Thanks to a diverse panel including Patsy Stinchfield, director of infection prevention and control at the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota; Cheryl Robertson, an associate professor in the School of Nursing, and John Deen, a professor of Veterinary Population Medicine, here are six things we learned:
1. The nature of infectious diseases. In 2014, Ebola made headlines around the world, bringing fear and uncertainty with it. Prior to this, the disease had primarily occurred in rural areas with little contact with other communities, and so was relatively contained. But as Ebola started to make its way into larger cities and cross international boundaries, it sparked new conversations about how to manage the uncertainties and left many feeling unprepared. And, while Ebola may be the most notorious infectious disease right now, it is not the only one we need to worry about. The speakers also addressed measles, and the often-underrated influenza.
2. Prevention is better than reaction. As the Ebola crisis grew, the United States scrambled to prepare, often while facing serious public criticism. Stinchfield discussed how the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota took steps to become one of the most prepared hospitals in the country by simulating labs, learning how to handle waste and spending time making sure staff felt comfortable about their own personal protection. While the hospital hasn’t had to deal with a real Ebola case, the preparation did come in handy during a couple of potential cases. It also opened up conversations about preparing for the next outbreak.
3. The war on infectious diseases. Part of the problem is not the disease itself, but our ability to respond to it. Many countries that suffer the most are dealing with difficult social and cultural problems. Robertson, who has spent time in Liberia and a significant portion of her career addressing public health in conflict situations, compares the damage of infectious diseases to that of a war zone. Having the capacity to be completely prepared for these situations requires access to tangible resources as well as to intangible resources such as education. It’s hard to build a resilient health care system when professionals are leaving areas for their own safety and schools are closing. Moving forward, we need to think about the varied challenges that come with handling infectious diseases around the world.
4. It’s a learning process. While we’ve made strides in learning about infectious diseases and how to treat them, there is room for improvement. In 1989 and 1990, the United States struggled with a measles resurgence. At that time, it was practice to administer only one dose of vaccine, but researchers realized that this left 5 percent of the population vulnerable. Now medical professionals administer two doses of the vaccine, helping to raise the success of the vaccine to 99 percent. Such continued discovery will be important as the changing global landscape changes our interactions with diseases.
5. We are victims of our own success. Vaccines have been so successful that we’ve started to become desensitized to their impact. No longer having to see the direct impacts and physical manifestations of the diseases, we’ve lost the fear associated with them. Now the fear of the vaccine has begun exceeding the fear of the disease itself. As Deen pointed out, we almost need some level of fear of the diseases in order to remind ourselves to act.
We are one global community. One of the most important things to remember is that we’re all connected and we need to think on a global scale. Prevention in one part of the world helps prevent problems in other parts. To solve big problems, we also need solutions from across communities, nations and disciplines. This thinking can apply beyond infectious diseases and could be one way to approach our current environmental challenges too.
Photo by Matthew Anderson (Flickr/Creative Commons)