The American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine recently sponsored Public Health 101: Restoring Order After the Cameras Leave, hosted by the Coalition for Health Funding. The event was held on Capitol Hill and provided an in-depth look at public health infrastructures that assist disaster-stricken individuals and communities. Much of this work gets little public attention, and many agencies are facing major funding cuts, therefore limiting their ability to respond to disasters and help communities recover from them. According to the Coalition for Health Funding, 23,000 state and local public health officials, an integral part of the public health infrastructure, have already lost their jobs.
During the gathering, three public health professionals involved in disaster relief and response shared their own experiences.
Issac Weisfuse, MD, MPH, Deputy Commissioner, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (pictured at left), spoke about his experiences following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City. He discussed the multiple steps he and his staff took during and after the attacks, including testing for radioactive substances at the crash sites, conducting air quality assessments, deploying mental health professionals and launching a crisis and suicide hotline, inspecting restaurants to assess food spoilage; rodent abatement, treating rescue workers’ injuries, and many others. Much of emergency preparedness is greatly aided by federal funding, Dr. Weisfuse said, and decreases in such funding would lead to much slower response time.
Clayton Williams, MPH, Assistant Secretary for Public Health, State of Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (pictured at right), described the response to the devastating Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and the BP oil spill. According to Mr. Williams, preparedness funding is critically important--an investment that "translates into an investment of a community’s ability to respond in an event.” He said an important lesson learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is that it is vital to build relationships prior to a disaster, and that efficient disaster response facilitates future recovery.
Jerry Suls, PhD, Professor and College Fellow, University of Iowa (pictured at left), was the final speaker of the day. Dr. Suls spoke about tornadoes and flooding in Iowa and the importance of physiological infrastructure. He said that after a national disaster or terrorist event a lot of money needs to be spent on physical and biotechnical infrastructures, but also needs to be allocated to help rebuild physiological infrastructures. He used the example, “a good vaccine doesn’t matter if people won’t come and get it.” Dr. Suls spoke to the fact that many people affected by disasters are already “challenged” before the event, needing even more help after. The affected can need a push to get help, or may fail to prepare for the possibility of future disasters, believing that because such an event has already struck one location, it won’t strike the same location again. He said funding is imperative for staff, research, evaluation and community outreach.
Coalition for Health Funding President Judy Sherman moderated the event and reiterated the importance of federal funding to emergency preparedness and a community’s ability to respond to and recover from disasters. The Coalition for Health Funding is urging that the United State’s public health programs be recognized as a critical national priority in the fiscal year 2012 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations bill.