Public Health Preparedness & Response

Dispatches from the Newbie: The 2012 Public Health Preparedness and Response Summit

By Kara MacKeil, Senior Technician, Public Health Preparedness and Response

Greetings from sunny southern California! By the time you read this I’ll be back in chilly DC, but as I write it’s over 70 degrees outside and the Tower of Terror is beckoning.  The 2012 Public Health Preparedness and Response Summit has just wrapped up, and I think it’s safe to say this has been a very important, but very fun week for everyone involved.  Even though we can see Disneyland from our hotel rooms, the APHL staff and members who attended this meeting have been making the most of a great opportunity to form new connections in the world of public health preparedness and share ideas for improvement.  As a relative newcomer, I’ve been really interested to see all of the different types of agencies that work in public health along with the laboratories.  The exhibit hall was full of different vendors, federal agencies, and other groups, all with interesting positions and experiences to contribute (and great decorations for my desk).  But thanks to the Fantastic Wheel of Fun, the APHL booth was definitely one of the most popular stops in the exhibit hall!  Super-secret plans are in the works to top ourselves next year…

APHL's Kara MacKeil at the 2012 Public Health Preparedness and Response Summit

When I wasn’t handing out giant microbes, I did manage to make it to a few sessions.  I particularly liked the town hall discussion, “A Family Vacation That Won’t Soon Be Forgotten: A Naturally Acquired Inhalational Anthrax Case.”  Collaboration between different agencies and labs is something we talk about a lot and this was a great example of these partnerships — a local hospital lab (in this case the Lake Region Healthcare Laboratory in Fergus Falls, Minnesota) working with the Minnesota Department of Health Laboratory and the Minnesota National Guard Civil Support Team to identify and then respond to a very sudden, very scary case of inhalational anthrax.   This story had been covered in the national news from a public safety perspective, but the presenters chose to follow from the point of view of the patient, from zero hour to present day.  Seeing the process laid out step by step made the role of each participating agency very clear, and I thought it gave the audience a great way to connect with the story and understand the importance of these networks on a really personal level. The best part was that the patient recovered thanks to this seamless response structure!

My favorite session this week was the closing session, a talk by D.A. Henderson, MD, MPH on the history of public health preparedness and where it needs to go in the future.  Even though most of the attendees have been in this game a lot longer than I have, I think everyone there was just as captivated as I was.  As you might guess, the trajectory Dr. Henderson presented was very much a before and after 9/11 trend, but he pointed out that since 2001 we haven’t had the steady increase in funding and training you might hope for.  The theme of this year’s Summit was “Regroup, Refocus, Refresh: Sustaining Preparedness in an Economic Crisis,” and Dr. Henderson tackled this problem head on with his Complacency Curve to show the general decline in public health preparedness funding since 2001.  My hope is that this curve will shift soon. This session also touched on a personal interest of mine with Dr. Henderson’s answer to an audience member’s question about declining vaccination rates and how we might convince parents to get their children immunized.  When you’re talking preparedness it is easy to stay focused on biological and chemical warfare, but as a former healthcare worker, declining vaccine rates scare me just as much.  While it might be a little gruesome, I had to agree that parents might be more willing to vaccinate if they knew just how bad some of the vaccine-preventable diseases can be.  On the other hand, I know there are some parents who are never going to choose vaccination no matter what they’re advised to do.  I’ll be interested to see where this issue goes as herd immunity gets weaker.

Aside from the early morning start-times (and the jet lag), we all had a great time and learned a lot.  I hope the new ideas from this meeting stay with us when we get home, but the sooner the ticking of that prize wheel leaves my dreams, the better…



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