12.22.17

Leahy Congressional Record Statement On Pandemic Preparedness

Mr. President, 2018 marks the 100 year anniversary of the influenza pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people, including 670,000 Americans.  I suspect most people assume that given the remarkable advances in modern medicine since 1918 nothing so disastrous could happen again, but in fact it could and next time it could be even worse.  The spread of infectious diseases and drug resistance, and the accompanying threats to global security, are on the rise – and the international community is woefully underprepared to fight back.  

The several large-scale infectious disease outbreaks of the last two decades, including SARS, H1N1, and Ebola have revealed the extent to which individual countries and the international community at large need to dramatically improve their preparedness to respond to such potentially catastrophic health crises.

The stark reality is that the threat is increasing.  An ever-growing, increasingly-mobile global population will provide the breeding ground for the emergence and contagion of existing and new infectious diseases. 

The potential threats from infectious disease outbreaks include not only catastrophic loss of life, but severe economic harm and social and political instability.  The 2014-15 Ebola outbreak, for example, which began with the death of a two-year-old boy in a remote Guinean village, ultimately killed more than 11,000 people across six countries, left thousands of children orphaned, caused an estimated economic loss to those countries of nearly $3 billion, and resulted in many people losing confidence in their country’s public health system.

It is important to note that Ebola, which is spread through direct contact and terrified millions of people including in this country, is hardly the most infectious known disease.  Several other disease agents, such as measles and influenza, can be spread through the air and can develop into epidemics or pandemics much more rapidly.

That is one of the reasons why many global health experts fear that an infectious disease outbreak far worse than Ebola will occur sometime in the next twenty years, and that the number of outbreaks will become more frequent.

And yet, despite improvements in access to safe water and sanitation, vaccine development, and other public health advances to combat infectious diseases, an enormous amount of work remains.  

One of the most important lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak is that time is of the essence. The lack of a rapid, coordinated global response resulted in many preventable deaths.  Disease surveillance systems were poor or nonexistent in the severely impacted countries, there was a lack of trained personnel to rapidly deploy, and no effective public communication system was in place to inform and update local communities.

An additional problem was the inability to quickly mobilize resources.  Countries and NGOs around the globe lacked a reserve of available funds.  The Congress took a step toward addressing this issue in the fiscal year 2017 State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill, which included a $70 million Emergency Reserve Fund to address infectious disease outbreaks around the globe.  In the fiscal year 2018 Senate version of the State and Foreign Operations bill, Chairman Graham and I included $130 million for programs to prevent and respond to such emerging health threats.

However, as I have said before and I will say again, far more needs to be done to build the public health infrastructure to prevent and respond to disease pandemics.  As the international community works to be more prepared for infectious disease outbreaks, the U.S. should continue to play a leading role in preparedness planning.  Unfortunately, President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget would cut funding for these very programs, including for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which played an indispensable role in responding to the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, as it has to many other international health crises.

It is time we invest and prepare for pandemics in a similar way as we invest and prepare for war, nuclear disasters, or other large-scale threats to global security. The potential consequences are no less serious.  I urge the White House to face up to this reality and dramatically increase funding for these programs at CDC, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other federal agencies that play a role in global health security.  

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