No matter how hard the Trump administration will try to focus solely on domestic issues to “make America great again,” Bill Steiger said last week at an event on pandemic preparedness at Georgetown University, a public health issue of international importance will arise that will demand the U.S. government’s attention. And investing in building up global health security, both at home and abroad, Steiger said on the panel on pandemic preparedness, is very much an “America first” agenda, not only to protect America’s health but to protect America’s economy.
Steiger, who was director of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Global Health Affairs under the George W. Bush administration, said his number one piece of advice to the new administration is to prepare for global health events that “will go from being on no one’s to-do list to being the only thing on their list.” If confirmed as HHS Secretary, Steiger said, Rep. Tom Price will have to be ready to focus on international issues from day one.
Steiger, who participated in the transition from the Bush to the Obama administration in 2008, recalled how Kathleen Sebelius’s first order of business after landing in D.C. to assume her role as HHS secretary was to attend a briefing on the H1N1 influenza outbreak. He also recalled that during his time at HHS, the Bush administration had to deal with one infectious disease issue after another, from anthrax to SARS to H5N1 to the Marburg outbreak in Angola, which, Steiger said, “came very very close to what Ebola became in West Africa.”
In addition to HHS being poised to respond immediately and effectively to global infectious disease issues, Steiger said, President-Elect Trump should appoint a member of the National Security Council to be dedicated solely to global health security, who would have the power to convene U.S. agencies to respond to outbreaks and pandemics.
Strengthening President Obama’s Global Health Security Agenda, Steiger said, is an easy win for the Trump administration, and can easily be rebranded. “It doesn’t matter what you call it, but these core relationships that have been built should be continued,” he said. “It’s bipartisan, well organized, and involves a lot of smart people across government.”
Those relationships include partnerships with forty countries, of which 34 have undergone joint external evaluations of their health systems to assess their capacities to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease outbreaks, Dr. Hamid Jafari of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Jafari explained that the U.S. exports over $9 billion in goods and services to those forty countries, and 630,000 American jobs are linked to those exports.
“Our vulnerabilities don’t only lie in health, but there are also economic vulnerabilities, and American jobs are at stake when something gets out of control in other countries,” Jafari said. “Americans need to better understand how inextricably our security and jobs are tied to other countries.”
Investing in global health security is not a political issue, Jafari said. “If Americans are willing to buy life insurance, are willing to have fire departments, then they need to be willing to have global health contingency funding, he said. “Politicians will follow.”