Ebola crisis hearing highlights strengths, room for improvement in nation's response to biological threats

Medical expert testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Friday revealed much about the United State's preparedness to respond to possible biological threats on its own soil.

While the testimonies highlighted several areas where responses and procedures could be improved, the picture painted of the country's preparedness to face threats, such as Ebola and anthrax, was primarily positive.

“Despite some of the challenges that dealing with a serious illness such as Ebola can have on even the most advanced health care system, I can say with certainty that we are now more prepared for the range of (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense) threats and other emerging infectious diseases, such as pandemic influenza, than at any other point in our nation's history,” Dr. Nicole Lurie, the assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said.

Lurie also praised infrastructure improvements made over the past five years that have increased the capability to develop, test, produce and deploy medical countermeasures necessary to address a wide range of threats.

“We are extremely serious in our focus on protecting America's health security,” Lurie said. “The best way to do that is to support the response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa to get infection and spread under control as quickly as possible. At the same time, thanks to the preparedness work and planning that has taken place over the past several years, we are speeding the development of medical countermeasures and preparing our public health and health care systems to deal with any further cases in the United States.”

With continued support from Congress and inclusion in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Strategic National Stockpile, Lurie said health agencies hope to make available a wide range of new medical countermeasures in the next five years, including an entirely new class of antibiotics, an anthrax vaccine and antitoxins, a smallpox vaccine and antivirals, pandemic influenza countermeasures, a new smallpox vaccine and the first set of chemical antidotes to chemical threats. She also mentioned radiological and nuclear countermeasures, including those that address the hematopoietic, pulmonary, cutaneous and gastrointestinal effects of acute radiation sickness.

“We are making efficient use of the investments provided and we are far better off than we were 10 years ago following the anthrax attacks and the Hurricane Katrina response,” Lurie said. “As a result, HHS stands ready to provide health and medical support to our states and communities.”

The voice most critical of the nation's preparedness efforts belonged to Deborah Burger, a registered nurse and co-president of National Nurses United, who called the response to Ebola from U.S. hospitals and government agencies “dangerously inconsistent and woefully inadequate.”

Burger testified that a lack of adequate training on Ebola preparedness, as well as insufficient and voluntary guidelines for protective equipment, put nurses and, ultimately, the public, at risk. She urged the development of mandatory national standards for both protective uniforms and treatment protocols, and called on Congress and the White House to act.

“Simply put, not one more nurse, not one more hospital worker, not one more patient should become infected with Ebola,” Burger said. “Not one more community should have fear of Ebola being spread in their neighborhoods. The only effective way to stop the spread of fear is to ensure full preparedness in every U.S. hospital. And our long experience with U.S. hospitals is that they will not act on their own to secure the highest standards of protection without a specific directive from our federal authorities in the form of an Act of Congress or an executive order from the White House.”

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