On Monday, Governor Rick Perry announced he will form a task force on preparedness and local response for infectious diseases that pose an active threat to Texans. The move comes in reaction to the recent Ebola case in Dallas, but many are saying that there are more important, and dangerous, diseases to focus on than Ebola.
Anna Dragsbaek is president of The Immunization Partnership in Houston. She says the greater public health concern is parents not getting their kids vaccinated -- influenza, which is preventable with a vaccine, will infect far more people in Texas this year than the Ebola virus. And illnesses like the flu, pertussis and other vaccine-preventable illnesses should be the committee's focus.
"Last year in Texas we lost 20 children to influenza, and that's unacceptable. We can prevent that," she says. "We've had one case of Ebola. And while that's very scary and I don't take that likely, we have lot's more cases with vaccine-preventable diseases that cause a lot more damage. Ebola is not vaccine-preventable, but with the right interventions it doesn't pose a great threat to the public at large."
Dr. Peter Hotez is one of the doctors that will be serving on the task force. He says that while Ebola may have been the spark that ignited the formation of the committee, he's optimistic that more prevalent -- and preventable -- illnesses will become the focus of the task force.
"It's all hands on deck about Ebola right now. But as things start to calm down, I'm hoping to peel the onion and reveal other infectious diseases that are infecting our state," he says. "It's broader than just Ebola. We're going to look at lots of diseases with epidemic potential, like influenza. And I'm also hoping to bring to the forefront some of these tropical diseases."
Still, the task force will need to walk the fine line between addressing the greater public concern for Ebola and the actual public threat of more common diseases. "We're going to need to walk and chew gum at the same time," says Hotez. "We need to address this patient with Ebola, and there's going to be more people coming in. It's flu season, so we're going to have more people with fevers coming in, and we need to distinguish those people that come from West Africa."
It's the kind of hospital preparedness that officials now admit was lacking when Timothy Eric Duncan first visited Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. Though he told nursers at the hospital he had recently traveled from Liberia, where Ebola is epidemic, doctors sent him home at first. "When a patient comes in from one of the three affected countries, we need to make sure certain procedures are in place," Hotez says. "We will be making recommendations and providing assessment for what things are already in place, what's working well, and what needs to be improved."
Dragsbaek says she is optimistic the task force will address more threatening illnesses than just Ebola. "Infectious diseases run the gamut of vaccine-preventable and non-vaccine-preventable illnesses. They need to make sure there are methods in place to prevent illnesses that could pose a major risk. And I would pose that there are infectious diseases that are more of a threat than Ebola," she says.
Living in Sierra Leone for six years, Dragsbaek witnessed firsthand the damage that lack of vaccines can cause. "I saw measles, polio, meningitis. There were lots of vaccine-preventable illnesses, but they dont have an adequate supply of vaccines," she says. "Texas has had an alarming rise in people that are choosing not to be immunized, and many of those are children. I would like the task force to look at the impact of those exempting on the ability of our communities to combat vaccine-preventable diseases, and see if these policies need to be reformed in order to better protect the public."
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