National Press Club

CDC Director catalogs health threats that are ‘just a plane ride away’

September 10, 2013 | By Stephenie Overman | saoverman@gmail,com

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,addresses a luncheon at the National Press Club, Sept. 10, 2013.

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,addresses a luncheon at the National Press Club, Sept. 10, 2013.

Photo/Image: Al Teich

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is worried about coughs.

In his Sept. 10 talk at the National Press Club, Frieden cataloged the many types of health threats posed by the many new, deadly, sometimes drug-resistant pathogens loose in today’s interconnected global environment.

“A virus anywhere is just a plane ride away,” Frieden said, and “most of our seafood, fruits and vegetables, and our medication supply comes from other countries.”

The first threat, according to Frieden, is from “the cough of emerging diseases.” Each year, on average, a new infectious disease is discovered. Last April, an outbreak of human infections with a new avian influenza A(H7N9)virus was reported. So far,there is no effective vaccine for this potentially deadly virus. “The only thing protecting us now is that it doesn't spread from person to person,” Frieden said, and no one can predict when that might occur.

The second threat, Frieden said, comes from the cough of drug-resistant diseases. The CDC reports that antibiotic drugs have been so widely used that infectious organisms have adapted to them, making those drugs less effective. People infected with antimicrobial-resistant organisms are more likely to have longer hospital stays and may be more likely to die as a result of the infection.

The third threat comes from “the cough of intentional diseases,” Frieden said. “The same tools that enable us to find problems, stop them and prevent them are also available to bad guys” who could launch a biological attack by intentionally releasing a pathogen (disease-causing agent) or biotoxin (poisonous substance produced by a living organism).

To the list of threats, Frieden later added the smoker’s cough. “Smoking is the leading cause of death in this country. Sometimes there is the misconception that we have dealt with that,” but there are more than a thousand deaths a day as a result of smoking. A new concern, he said, is the growing number of teenagers who are using e-cigarettes.

Worldwide collaboration in health and safety is crucial, according to Friedan, to protect people and to exchange valuable information. Plus, “it’s the right thing to do. For a very small investment we can make a massive difference.”

Ten years ago, China did not act quickly in the case of a Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic, Frieden said, but in this year’s H7N9 outbreak “they have been absolutely transparent. We have been able to begin making a vaccine – we’re harvesting 10 years of collaboration.”

Even before sequestration, “CDC’s budget has not done well,” according to Frieden, and tens of thousands of public-health jobs have been eliminated due to state and local cuts.

“The challenge is always to remind people that what is urgent is not always what is seen most readily,” he said. The danger is that of “losing the ability to track and prevent the next generation” of deadly health threats.