April 22, 2015

Biodefense panel tackles disaster response and recovery

By Elizabeth Francis

On April 1st, 2015, the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense convened its fourth and final session, hearing from expert witnesses on emergency response and recovery issues at both the national and state levels. While many topics were discussed, the overarching theme that emerged from the testimonies was that disaster response, regardless of the type of disaster, is a collaborative effort between many parties and that good communication is essential in successfully handling response efforts for both humans and animals.

The session was split into five panels: pre-event activities and emergency response; public health response; pharmaceutical response; recovery and mitigation; and leadership. Before the session began, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) spoke about the states’ roles in disaster response and the media’s response. Dr. Irwin Redlener, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University and the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, spoke during the lunch session on the challenges of disaster response, such as limited funding and how our decentralized government makes effective planning difficult.

From a veterinary perspective, the most interesting testimony came from Melissa Hersh, a critical infrastructure consultant and CEO of Hersh Consulting. She reminded the panel that even though most emergencies deal with human health issues, it is important to keep in mind the importance of protecting herd health. She indicated that most policies place high priority on treating sick individuals, as opposed to isolating or decontaminating them, which can be problematic in a contagious disease situation despite being more popular from a humanitarian view.

As an example, Hersh discussed the potential bio-threat from Brucellosis, which is a zoonotic disease carried by elk in western states and has begun to make a recurrence in bison and cattle populations. This zoonotic disease has the potential to cause severe economic loss and is dangerous to those exposed, but yet, the agencies tasked with managing the threat have been playing a game of “hot potato,” she said.  Because of the high risks involved in managing this disease, Hersh highlighted the need for response and action before the situation deteriorates. She indicated that when prevention is possible, it is important to take steps to minimize the dangers of a bio-event so that disaster can be avoided.

While most of the discussion centered on human health issues, the panel provided important insight into disaster readiness and recovery. Although I may be biased, I think more time and discussion should have been spent on issues affecting our vulnerable agriculture rather than just on the preparation of hospital beds and expedited vaccine development. While these are certainly important aspects of disaster response, I believe that a veterinary voice is needed to help direct discussion in order to develop a broadened response, which includes livestock management.

The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense began in December 2014 and will identify and recommend changes to U.S. policy and law to strengthen national biodefense while optimizing resource investments. It plans to issue it report sometime in the spring of this year. For more information, visit the panel’s website.