The spread of the West African Ebola epidemic into the United States this month has made Americans aware of the nation’s inability to adequately prevent the spread of foreign pandemics into the U.S.
But while Ebola is a scourge, it is treatable and difficult to contract. According to the National Institutes of Health, both of the nurses who contracted the deadly hemorrhagic fever from the “index patient” in Dallas, Thomas Eric Duncan, have been cleared of the virus. There are early indication that the latest patient, a New York City-based doctor who contracted the disease while caring for Ebola patients in Africa, may have also been admitted to hospital at a treatable stage of infection.
While Ebola may not be a threat to America’s health security institutions, other more contagious and deadly illnesses could be. What’s more, the Ebola crisis has revealed that American institutions are ill-prepared to handle a serious health threat.
According to an independent audit of the Department of Homeland Security from the Office of the Inspector General, America’s first line of defense against a pandemic threat is underprepared.
A summary of the IG’s report via Mediaite’s Andrew Kirell is deeply troubling:
• “DHS did not adequately conduct a needs assessment before purchasing protective equipment and antiviral drugs. As a result, we could not determine the basis for DHS’s decisions regarding how much or what types of pandemic supplies to purchase, store, or distribute. As a result, DHS may have too much of some equipment and too little of others.”
• “DHS purchased much of the equipment in drugs without thinking through how these supplies would need be replaced… [DHS] thinks their entire stockpile of personal, usable equipment will not be usable after 2015.”
• “DHS did not manage its inventory of drugs or equipment: Drugs and equipment have gone missing, and conversely, our audit has found drugs in the DHS inventory that the department thought had been destroyed.
• “We found drugs that were not being stored in a temperature-controlled environment. Because DHS cannot be assured that they were properly stored, they are in the process of recalling a significant quantity of them because they may not be safe of effective.”
The Ebola crisis has revealed clearly that the Centers for Disease Control was not ready to handle an Ebola outbreak in the United States, and responded to criticism with a clearer interest in avoiding scrutiny than in adequately addressing the threat to American health security. Now, it is apparent that DHS is equally unready to handle a major pandemic.
In a way, the United States is lucky that it was Ebola and not a contagion like a variation of the flu that exposed the weaknesses in the country’s health security institutions. Perhaps American officials can address these problems before the next potential epidemic arises.