September 17, 2019 / Mark Ames

Appreciating the Role of IH in Infectious Diseases

Image: medicine bottles on a conveyor belt.

It was staff appreciation week at AIHA, and to be honest, I was looking forward to the celebratory breakfast. Instead, I found myself heading into Washington, DC to engage in a fascinating discussion about the United States’ preparedness for pandemics.

Walk into a crowded room and just say the word “Ebola.” You can bet that many of the conversations will gutter and heads will nervously turn towards you. Infectious diseases such as Ebola and anthrax rightly strike a note of fear into the hearts of many. They require a serious evaluation of the response protocols in place if an outbreak is suspected.

It was to address these very matters that I braved the swampy summer humidity of Washington to attend the first-ever combined workshop of public and private partners to discuss supply chain issues related to the Strategic National Stockpile, or SNS.

One would be forgiven for thinking that the SNS deals with some type of nuclear or petroleum issue, but the SNS actually involves the United States’ ability to respond to public health emergencies. If you’re wondering how IHs factor into the SNS, much of it comes down to preventing and quickly responding to a suspected outbreak and controlling its spread. These incidents thoroughly engage the training of IHs and often result in important lessons learned. That type of analysis brought me and more than 30 other organizational representatives to a large conference room in the offices of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), which falls under the Department of Health and Human Services.

Speed and information are among the most crucial elements of emergency response; accordingly, we spent much of our time reviewing the existing protocols and brainstorming potential improvements. Some of the questions asked included: Which groups should be contacted first? Is it best for government entities to contact only a few trade associations, who can then relay messages to their members? Are larger blast emails more effective? Sometimes key agency staff need to speak with stakeholders by phone; what protocols do associations have in place to respond to these incidents? Does each organization have a point of contact? What happens if that POC is unavailable? Do they understand that being a POC means they might need to respond to an incident in the middle of the night or when they’re out on a golf course?

At the conclusion of this segment, we settled on a three-pronged approach:

  1. A blast email will be sent to all partners containing a one- to two-page summary of the incident.
  2. ASPR will set up a call or webinar with all partners to share additional information and coordinate in real time.
  3. Actions will be taken based on the feedback received via email and phone or webinar, and response operations will continue.

A significant focus of the meeting was a draft playbook on response protocols to an anthrax incident, which included background information on the disease, scenario modeling, detection, decision making, and response actions. A similar treatment was given to an Ebola incident.

One of the key takeaways from these discussions is that each disease and incident is different, presenting unique challenges that must be closely examined. Responses that are appropriate for one disease may not be appropriate for another. This might appear obvious, but it warrants emphasis because appropriately tailored responses can mean the difference between life and death, sickness and health.

As for next steps, it’s clear that a great many actors are involved in the prevention and control of infectious diseases, and that IH, for all its relevance and importance, risks being left out. Like all professions, it is in our collective interest to be at the table and remind those assembled what we have to offer. While that might seem daunting, there are reasons to be hopeful.

Both the government and non-government sectors realize the importance of communicating with each other and are aware that not everyone who should be at the table always is. This awareness is what led me to the pandemic workshop, which I heard about through my network. I was speaking with one of my colleagues from another association about AIHA’s work with hearing protection and mentioned as an aside that IHs are also incredibly important on issues such as infectious diseases. That prompted an introduction to a key player at ASPR, which lead to an invitation to attend the workshop.

With this in mind, please continue networking and talking about the issues you care most about. Help people understand the many ways that IH impacts their lives every day. You never know where your conversations will take you. If you need a bit of help, please check out AIHA’s conversation starters (PDF), which provide useful talking points and data to help you engage with others who might not understand your important work.

Interested in learning more about the role of IH in preventing and controlling the spread of infectious diseases? Take a look at this Synergist article by Aurora Le and Shawn Gibbs, which provides key information, insights, and additional resources.

Mark Ames

Mark Ames is AIHA's director of Government Relations.


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