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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Swine flu, vacant health posts jeopardize public health”

    On Tuesday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) listed the number of confirmed U.S. swine flu cases at 71. In addition, countries around the world, including Canada, Israel, New Zealand, Spain and Scotland, are beginning to confirm their own cases of swine flu. And, of course, Mexico is the unquestionable epicenter of the outbreak.

    Unfortunately, many expect the outbreak will continue to spread, perhaps even reaching pandemic proportions. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has raised its pandemic alert to level 4 from level 3, meaning sustained human-to-human transmission has been confirmed.

    Typically, three key players shape the federal government’s response to public health emergencies: the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), the director of the CDC and the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, when the epidemic first broke in the United States, these three critical positions were without permanent leaders. In fact, the CDC and the FDA still lack permanent leaders, and the Senate only confirmed the HHS secretary on Tuesday. Many other leadership positions within these agencies remain unfilled as well.

    I suppose it’s only fitting, then, that an outbreak of swine flu would occur now – at a time when several top health posts remain vacant under the Obama administration. These vacancies will undoubtedly prove detrimental to the government’s response to the developing swine flu crisis. What’s worse, these unfilled positions jeopardize the health and safety of Americans.

    The White House, however, disagrees with that assessment. On Monday press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “”Our response is in no way hindered or hampered by not having a permanent secretary at HHS right now.””

    But the White House’s opinion may be the minority one. Former HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt called these vacancies “”a significant deterrent to our best reaction.””

    Since the Senate only recently confirmed Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s choice for secretary of HHS, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has taken a lead role in the administration’s response to the flu outbreak. Napolitano has appeared at press conferences and on TV news programs to address the issue.

    Since Napolitano’s job is to protect the American way of life from all hazards, it seems prudent for her to assume a key role in the government’s response. On the other hand, it seems like Napolitano is performing the job of the HHS Secretary. After all, “”The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the United States government’s principal agency for protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services, especially for those who are least able to help themselves,”” according to the government’s HHS Web site.

    That makes me wonder, is the flu outbreak hindering Napolitano’s ability to perform her duties at Homeland Security? It’s certainly disconcerting that Napolitano has no background in public health, epidemiology or science. Perhaps then, she’s not the most qualified leader to be at the forefront of this pandemic.

    At the end of the day, swine flu is a threat to public health first and a threat to national security second. To address the threat to public health and to bridge the gap between the administration and its constituents, we need permanent leaders at our nation’s health agencies.

    A prominent and permanent Surgeon General, for example, could tell us what exactly swine flu is, when and where to seek treatment and how to protect ourselves. Any of these leaders could provide a wealth of information regarding swine flu to the public, which could clear up some prevalent misconceptions and erroneous beliefs.

    It is true that information is widely available and these agencies are working to combat the pandemic. However, these agencies lack permanent leaders who can reassure the public. Napolitano is trying to fill their shoes by becoming the face of the government’s response; but really, we need experts with suitable experience who can handle this crisis, not a seasoned politician who’s better qualified to combat terrorism.

    While the FDA and the CDC currently lack permanent leaders, both agencies are under the temporary guidance of some well-qualified experts. Even the critic Leavitt admitted, “”Those spots are occupied by some very capable people.””

    Leavitt is quick to explain, though, “”Again, the thing that distinguishes a pandemic is the duration and the breadth. This is not a sprint. It becomes a marathon response, and permanent leadership is necessary.””

    At this point in the Obama administration, well past the first 100 days, we no longer need sprinters to helm critical health posts. We need seasoned marathon runners who can assemble an effective response to this outbreak, thereby ensuring our collective safety.

    -ÿJustin Huggins is a senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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