Former CDC chief says we're losing focus on public health priorities

Ebola vaccine
Doctor Francis Kateh (R) from Redemption Hospital volunteers to receive a trial vaccine against Ebola at Redemption Hospital on the outskirts of Monrovia on February 3, 2015. The first large-scale trials of two Ebola vaccines began in Liberia on February 2, the hospital hosting the research said.
Zoom Dosso | AFP | Getty Images

Dr. Julie Gerberding says there's a lot of consensus about how to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. We know what to do, but we don't do it.

Gerberding is the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she thinks competing crises and the dominance of social media are partly to blame for the inaction on public health.

When searching "crisis" on Google, Gerberding said she had to go through several pages of information on student loans, violence and health care before finding anything on disease outbreaks.

"So these problems are occurring, they're just not experienced as crisis and I think it's really important for us to understand why," she said during a speech on April 13, at the University of Minnesota's Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment and the Life Sciences.

As time goes on the world's population is going to move into larger cities, which then push out into nature in order to accommodate the newcomers. This makes humans more susceptible to diseases carried by animals and spread by mosquitoes as we begin to encroach on their habitats, Gerberding said.

There is confusion about who to believe about the risks surrounding infectious disease, in part because news sources will often bring in two experts who are not in agreement on health topics, she said. Another reason people aren't worried, in the United States especially, is because we think diseases spreading in other countries will never make it to our borders.

"And when we think about who we want to influence most, I think we need to remember that politicians and policymakers are people too, and they very often respond to these kinds of issues from a risk perception point of view, not a risk assessment point of view," Gerberding said.

So in order to reach them, and the general population, true stories of the aftermath from these diseases need to be shared widely, from trusted sources.

Professor Michael Osterholm moderated a panel discussion after Gerberding's speech, which also featured Amy Kircher, director of the U of M Food Protection and Defense Institute.

Osterholm is director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP). His 2017 book is titled, "Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs."

To listen to the program, click the audio player above.

Further reading

• Mental health and the criminal justice system: Can Minnesota do better?

• Health: Vaccine fears driving measles outbreak among Somalis in Hennepin Co.

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