Going Viral: Keeping Communities Healthy Through Public Health Emergency Preparedness

How to Save Yourself When No One Else Can

Why a top expert believes the government’s system for disaster management is broken - and what you need to know to prepare for the unthinkable.

(PopTech / Flickr)

Tomorrow, The Atlantic will explore the threats of bioterrorism and how society can prevent them at Going Viral: Keeping Communities Healthy Through Public Health Emergency Preparedness. Few understand this topic better than Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. As founder and president of the Children’s Health Fund, Redlener has advised the White House on emergency preparedness, and he has penned a book about America’s inadequate disaster management system. We asked Dr. Redlener a few questions to prepare us for the event, which is underwritten by GSK:

What is the biggest flaw in the way the US government approaches national disasters?

The fact is that the United States functions under federalist principles, which may work well in most circumstances in assuring that long-term policy decisions are made in local jurisdictions.  This means that, most of the time, when it comes to disaster planning, the feds do not have the power to direct a true national strategy - though they can influence by putting out guidance or "incentivizing" through grants.

This is all exacerbated by several factors, including (a) the fact that Congressional oversight with respect to disaster response and planning is spread among a couple of dozen committees that essentially do not plan together or even communicate effectively; (b) the research needed to support planning based on true best practices or evidence-based guidance is ludicrously inadequate; (c) funding for disaster planning is massively insufficient and continues to fall; and (d) we have "definitional challenges,” like what do we really mean by a "prepared city?”

If Americans could only do one thing to ensure their own biosecurity, what it would it be?

Unfortunately, there is no one magic bullet. Citizens should (a) practice "situational awareness", (b) understand and plan for the disaster risks that their communities face, (c) follow guidance provided by FEMA or American Red Cross for getting prepared (including making a plan with the family),  and (d) advocate for their government to scale up funding for disaster planning and response.

And, by the way, do all of this without succumbing to disaster paranoia.  

What’s the next technology or system on the horizon for the public health emergency preparedness arena?

Look for much greater use of social media and state-of-the-art communications technology in all phases of disaster planning, response and recovery.

See Dr. Redlener discuss these points and more at tomorrow’s event at 8:30 a.m., whether in person or via live stream.