On April 5, I took a bipartisan delegation of Congressional staffers on a tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The CDC utilizes world class laboratories and highly trained workers to protect the health security of the nation, in partnership with state and local health agencies.
The tour opened with a greeting from Dr. Jay Butler, Deputy Director of Infectious Diseases, who offered his thoughts on education to counter vaccine hesitancy. Dr. Butler urged us to recognize that families have their own best interests in mind, so the public health community needs not only to provide information but also seek to understand what drives shifts in behavior around vaccination. He also importantly mentioned that the new generation of healthcare providers has not seen certain vaccine-preventable diseases, like measles and polio, in their lifetimes. For this reason, educating medical professionals is critical to efforts to identify and combat these diseases.
Next we heard from Dr. Rebecca Martin, Director of the Center for Global Health. Dr. Martin highlighted the assistance CDC gives to other countries in preventing, detecting, and responding to infectious diseases outbreaks and public health emergencies. She also offered encouraging updates on immunization and infectious disease surveillance progress as part of the Global Health Security Agenda: within 17 countries, 13 have increased community-based vaccine coverage capacity; all 17 have increased their health worker workforce; and 9 countries have established testing programs for pathogens they have identified as priorities. In light of recent global outbreaks, Dr. Miller referred to measles as “the canary in the coal mine,” echoing Shot@Life’s key messaging that viruses know no borders and that we must therefore stop diseases at their source.
On the topic of measles, Dr. Robert Linkins, Chief of the CDC’s Eradication and Elimination Branch noted that 21 million kids are still without the measles vaccine, despite the success of the Measles & Rubella Initiative in delivering 2 billion doses of the vaccine since 2001. We learned from Dr. Mark Pallansch, Director of the Division of Viral Diseases that the CDC uses molecular characterization to identify the genetic makeup and geographic origin of measles viruses, which is a method they pioneered with polio.
Polio has accounted for the longest ongoing activation of the CDC’s Emergency Operations Center, which has been activated to address more than 60 domestic and international health incidents since its inception in 2001. Dr. Jim Pirkle, Director of the Division of Laboratory Sciences, told our delegation about the impressive array of labs that enable epidemiologists to identify 150 different pathogens using rapid toxic tests. The WHO and others rely on CDC scientists for this lab work, as they have the capacity to measure 150 different pathogens in 40 people in 36 hours, which requires 90 people running 25 mass spectrometers — wow!
Another highlight of the day was the Insectary Lab Tour with guidance from leading entomologists. The CDC uses Advanced Molecular Detection to monitor mosquitos for insecticide resistance, which is especially relevant to the work of our colleagues on the Nothing But Nets team who are working to end malaria.
A major takeaway from the tour was a point made by Dr. Rima Khabbaz, who urged Congress to depart from the “boom-bust” mindset in global health funding. The U.S. government must fund outbreak responses to emerging threats like Zika and Ebola, but it is also critical to invest in global health programs long-term to prevent diseases in the first place. This sort of health systems strengthening involves detecting diseases, bolstering health work forces, and, of course, immunizing children!