Public health outbreaks don’t usually come with blaring sirens and flashing lights.
While novel diseases like Ebola and bird flu make headlines, the reality is that they represent a small fraction of the many contagious and often serious diseases that public health departments across the country monitor 24/7 and investigate to prevent their spread.
A recent tuberculosis (TB) investigation at Robert E. Lee High School was widely reported by the media; but it was just one of 59 TB investigations conducted by the Fairfax County Health Department. Each year, the Health Department investigates thousands of reports of suspected communicable diseases with our local public health system partners.
The prevention of epidemics and the spread of diseases is a core function of public health in the United States. Local, state and federal public health departments have developed tried and true practices over the years that have been so successful in containing disease outbreaks that the important work of health departments is usually only seen in what doesn’t happen and is often taken for granted.
The integrated practices of surveillance; working with partners to ensure isolation of sick individuals; the use of gowns, masks, gloves and other protective gear; and the ability to methodically track down, monitor and, if necessary, quarantine exposed individuals, is the hallmark of the often small, but dedicated local health department workforce who labor behind the scenes to prevent and respond to disease outbreaks and environmental hazards. The Health Department’s team of doctors, public health nurses, epidemiologists, environmental and community health specialists, planners, lab technologists and other allied staff are at work every day to protect the community. The department, for example, conducts more than 7,700 site visits at more than 3,300 food service establishments annually to ensure the food they serve is safe to eat.
The Ebola crisis in West Africa is yet another reminder of how very fortunate we are to have a public health system that works well. The strong working relationships developed over the years between public health and partners that include the health care community, laboratories, schools, colleges and universities, the airline industry, public safety departments, and others are crucial to staying prepared and being able to respond quickly and effectively to disease outbreaks, such as Ebola. The fact is the U.S. public health system is prepared to handle Ebola. While the first cases of Ebola in the U.S. were scary developments, it is important to understand that the same public health system that has been effective at preventing large community outbreaks of all types of infectious diseases will also stop imported cases of Ebola from spreading to others in the U.S. The adherence to communicable disease prevention and control protocols that enable the Health Department to routinely prevent the spread of all types of infectious diseases will be effective in preventing an outbreak of Ebola in the community.
“The U.S. public health system will not allow an outbreak of Ebola like the one we’re currently seeing in West Africa,” said Fairfax County’s Director of Health Gloria Addo-Ayensu, MD, MPH. “It’s unfortunate, but the worst-affected countries in this outbreak—Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone—all have one thing in common: they do not have a functional public health system.”
The Fairfax County Health Department continues to work closely with the Virginia Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to stay well informed and is providing guidance to local public health system partners, in coordination with regional partners, to ensure local situational awareness, preparedness and a coordinated response if warranted.