Take Three Steps Toward Handling Twin Threats

Posted July 2, 2003 at 4:26pm

Twin menaces currently confront our nation’s health. These two emerging threats come from different sources and take different courses but are equally dangerous.

The menace most on our minds today is the more visible threat of infectious disease, spread both naturally and intentionally as a weapon of terror. Globalization has made this threat even more real,

as once-isolated diseases now can travel from one end of the Earth to another in a matter of days, if not hours. Each year, we are faced with new disease strains — West Nile Virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome — as well as more powerful and resistant forms of old foes such as tuberculosis.

The second and perhaps even greater threat to our nation’s health is the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases tied not to exotic viruses but to unhealthy lifestyle choices. We are in the midst of an epidemic of Type-II diabetes and obesity, especially in our children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in three children born in the year 2000 — 50 million people — will develop Type-II diabetes by 2050. Once you develop diabetes, your risk of developing heart and kidney disease and stroke doubles. The cost implications of these trends are staggering. A recent CDC study found that obesity-related health problems alone account for nearly $100 billion in national spending each year.

How is Congress responding to this double threat? I see three key components to our national response, all of which share common links.

Capacity

In order to successfully contain infectious and chronic diseases, scientific and structural improvements to our public health capacity are key. We need to better understand these diseases and have the facilities in place to put that enhanced knowledge into practice. Our commitment in Congress to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health was particularly important toward enhancing our scientific capacity. The Human Genome Project at NIH allowed us to isolate the SARS virus so that it could be identified quickly and better understood. On the chronic disease side, I have seen firsthand the promise the NIH-sponsored islet cell transplant technology holds for those suffering from diabetes.

Of course, physical capacity for protecting our nation’s health, especially on the state and local level, is also important. Through the CDC, we have committed more than $2.5 billion to states to enhance their public health infrastructure and disease surveillance capabilities. Our ability to track and identify these disease threats on all levels of the public health system is key to an effective response.

Communication

Regular, two-way communication between federal, state and local public health officials is essential to an effective strategy to combat disease. One of my goals as chairman of the subcommittee that funds the Health and Human Services Department is to make the communication in our public health system as seamless as possible. We saw first-hand the consequences of failure in this regard with the SARS outbreak in China, where nearly 650 people died. Conversely, it is no coincidence that there have been no SARS-related deaths in this country, as the CDC quickly communicated with its state and local partners. We have built new state-of-the-art command centers at both the CDC in Atlanta and HHS to facilitate better communication with state and local partners as well as coordinate our national response.

Education

Public health strategies are only effective to the extent that the public understands and responds to them. Another goal of my chairmanship has been the improved dissemination of useful information that will help people protect themselves in the event of an emergency, lead healthier lives and prevent disease.

Simple messages and basic information are key, especially in times of crisis, toward allaying public fears. In the case of West Nile Virus, people were made aware of the risk of infection through a mosquito bite.

With regard to obesity and other chronic diseases, we know that a better diet and increased exercise go a long way toward reducing risk. We need to be getting these simple yet important messages out. One area where we have concentrated our education efforts has been the National Campaign to Change Youth Behavior. We have committed more than $200 million to develop a nationwide media campaign to persuade young people between the ages of 8 and 12 to begin now to lay a foundation for a healthy, active lifestyle. I am hopeful that these positive messages will help us turn around the alarming epidemic of obesity and Type-II diabetes we are seeing in children. A turnaround in this area will have significant long-term benefits for individuals, as well as for our entire health care system.

Congress is responding in numerous proactive ways to address the nation’s emerging health threats. By providing funding for capacity in research and infrastructure, communications and education, I believe Congress is working effectively with our lead health agencies to protect our nation from potentially devastating health threats.

Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) is chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.