Pandemics are major threats to world health, security, and economics. Most experts agree it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” the next pandemic will occur. But even with that admonishment, few nations are adequately prepared for such an occurrence — even though the cost of unpreparedness is much higher than the cost preparation. What does this global threat mean for those in the traveling health care industry, especially those providing nursing services?
When a viral or bacterial contagion is introduced into a new environment, there is little immunity in human and animal populations to stem its spread. And because of the ease and popularity of global travel, diseases can spread quickly among countries and continents, so those that don’t take adequate measures to protect themselves are threats to the rest of the world.
Being prepared for a pandemic is much more than a written plan of action and a few simulation exercises. It means having the infrastructure, resources, and finances to prevent, detect, respond to, and control disease outbreaks. It also means heaving the ability to perform critical public health functions such as vaccination programs and disease surveillance as well as provide secure treatment facilities. It requires diagnostic laboratories and emergency operations centers, the ability to mobilize quickly, and skilled medical personnel. Lots of them.
To assess the state of global pandemic preparedness, World Health Organization (WHO) and World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) researchers conducted a study. The subsequent report found that the world is woefully unprepared. Only three wealthier countries — Finland, Saudi Arabia, and United States — and three poorer countries — Eritrea, Pakistan and Tanzania — have undergone the required evaluations to determine their preparedness to withstand a global outbreak. Many countries are reluctant to spend money on impending threats when they have so many current, pressing needs. Unfortunately, this is very short-sighted, given the low cost of preparedness relative to the devastating health, social, political, and economic impacts a pandemic can bring.
Even though the United States is relatively prepared for a pandemic, it doesn’t mean every health care facility is also ready. This was effectively demonstrated during the 2014 Ebola outbreak when only a few hospitals in the country had adequate facilities and trained personnel to safely and effectively treat infected individuals. It’s important that facility leaders across the U.S. continue to take steps to prepare. Disease outbreaks know no boundaries, and no country, including the U.S., is safe. And because it’s only one of few prepared countries, the U.S. could see an influx of infected individuals in the case of a pandemic, making further preparedness essential.
SARS, H1N1, and Ebola outbreaks opened the world’s eyes to the seriousness of biothreats as well as the disparities in nations’ public health and health care infrastructures. Possible future outbreaks include repeats of the SARS, H1N1, Ebola, and Zika viruses as well as flu viruses, drug resistant bacterial infections, unknown or re-emerging viruses, and biowarfare agents.
Individual health care providers are a key component of pandemic preparedness plans. In addition to obvious good hygienic habits, it’s important for nurses to be on the lookout for gaps and inefficiencies in their facilities’ safety and operation plans. Stay up-to-date with your skills, take continuing education classes relevant to epidemiology, stay current on vaccinations for potential exposures, be a voice for the importance of pandemic preparedness — and be ready to move out quickly to wherever you might be needed most.
There’s no way to predict when the next pandemic will strike or what could cause it, but we can prepare. Preventing and stopping pandemics requires a multifaceted approach with cooperation among leaders of world governments. But never underestimate the vital role you as a skilled and informed traveling health care provider play in our country’s pandemic preparedness planning.