Dear Representative Perry,
As an epidemiologist, medical technologist, and doctoral student of public health, I was gravely concerned to read the news that funding was being cut to the President’s request for assistance to West Africa during the current Ebola outbreak. My concern came partly because of my human desire to prevent as much death and suffering in people far and near, partly because of my career in laboratory medicine and public health, and partly because of what is happening in the United States right this moment with regards to our public health infrastructure. Cutting funding to the response in West Africa will affect us at home. Cutting funding in general to public health programs and associated research will definitely bring unnecessary pain and suffering to thousands of Americans. Let me explain.
Measles, an infectious disease caused by the Rubeola virus (one of the most infectious viruses known to man), is at a high not seen in a generation in the United States. A big part of the reason for this is a sharp increase is the lack of awareness by certain groups of parents that the MMR vaccine (available to us since 1971) is safe and effective. It’s so effective that taking the two recommended doses makes a person 99% immune to measles without having to go through the disease and its consequences. The vaccine is so safe, that millions (perhaps billions) of doses have been given out with only very few having serious side effects. Even with those side effects, the evidence is there that those folks having them would have had similar or worse reactions from the natural disease. With all this evidence in hand, we have outbreaks of measles left and right. Each outbreak costs tens of thousands of dollars to investigate and bring under control, and that’s just from the public health response. Not included in that figure are lost wages, medical visits, and hospitalizations — all of which could be avoided with a safe and effective vaccine.
Other vaccine-preventable diseases, like whooping cough, chickenpox and mumps are also on the rise and mostly for the same reason: Parents not being well-informed about the necessity of immunizations. Countries from Mexico on south to Argentina and Chile are the envy of the United States public health system for their very high and adequate immunization rates. With appropriate public health funding, we could educate all parents of all walks of life about the necessity and safety of timely vaccination, we could reduce the number of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in order to focus on food-borne outbreaks and other diseases and conditions, and we could improve the overall health of the United States.
But what does all this have to do with Ebola funding?
Mr. Perry, the scientists, physicians, nurses, technologists, and volunteers responding to that outbreak are gaining invaluable experience from it. The knowledge they will carry forward with them will help up during the next outbreak of influenza, Middle East Respiratory Virus, and even during the current outbreak of Enterovirus affecting children in the Midwest. Imagine those well-trained responders back here at home, Ebola outbreak over, being ready and knowledgeable in the event that — God forbid — one of our enemies releases an infectious biological weapon. The responders of today will be able to pass on that knowledge to the rest of us for tomorrow.
And that’s just the responders. Plenty of biotech firms in the United States are feverishly working for a treatment or vaccine for Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers of similar virulence. There is no doubt that advances in medical technology well beyond Ebola will be made. Scientists in laboratories here at home will go on to do great things with what they learn right now from our response to Ebola. Keeping them here and well-funded is a priority.
Mr. Perry, I urge you and your colleagues in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, to fund public health at home and our public health response abroad as much as possible, without cutting funding based on ideology. Yes, expenditures are high. Yes, we need to bring spending under control. But public health should not be one of those areas where cuts should be made. Funding for public health affects all of us, no matter where we are in life or how much wealth we’ve accumulated. Like we fund our soldiers who go and fight for us (and the firms that develop technology for those fights) who then make us better prepared for the next war, we need to fund our scientists and healthcare providers to gain experience now that will translate into action down the road. It is a worthwhile investment for now and for future generations.
Thank you for your time.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.