Washington — The United States and China have made remarkable progress in responding to a potential disease outbreak, said a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary April 5. Dr. Nils Daulaire’s assessment of the bilateral relationship on public health issues comes as a form of bird flu never previously detected in humans has caused five confirmed deaths in China.
Outbreaks of a flu strain that has made the leap from animals to humans raise anxiety about possible rapid transmission of a new form of influenza. But similar experiences over the last decade have put Chinese health authorities on alert. China has built an effective disease surveillance system, said Daulaire, and it has worked closely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to develop the proper response to infectious threats.
“This is an area in which global health diplomacy is working directly to protect both the Chinese people, the American people and, of course, the world,” said Daulaire.
The assistant secretary for global health made the remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington April 5 as he participated in a panel on Obama administration health priorities for the next several years. Daulaire said global health security and the capability to respond to pandemic illness are high on that list.
The international community must build “robust systems” with global capabilities, Daulaire said, to detect and respond to infectious disease threats. The capability to achieve that goal is bolstered by “a growing recognition of global interconnectedness” and the broad realization that infectious pathogens can travel as fast as airliners in a world economy.
The U.S. Department of State will be supporting efforts to build health care cooperation through the recently created Office of Global Health Diplomacy. Ambassador Leslie Rowe is leading the office, which will work to provide embassies with the information, support and expertise they need to serve as advocates for improved health systems and increased multilateral cooperation in addressing broad health problems such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
Rowe said the office will strive to make public health “a part of the daily diplomatic dialogue that ambassadors engage in.” This new undertaking will also be able to rely on backing from Secretary of State John Kerry, who was a longtime supporter of global health programs as a U.S. senator and who has since spoken about the U.S. role in eradicating polio, fighting HIV/AIDS and improving maternal mortality.
Further expanding the list of health concerns that the Obama administration hopes to tackle in the next few years, Daulaire said the United States must work both domestically and internationally to lower the rates of noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke and the many forms of cancer. These have become leading causes of death in both the developing and developed world, and more effective ways to address those trends must be identified.
The broad sale and distribution of substandard, inferior or counterfeit pharmaceuticals is another global health problem growing in scope. Daulaire said this trafficking in false medications can disappoint and harm a patient hoping for relief, but they can have a broader, more damaging impact.
Some misrepresented pharmaceuticals circulating in the marketplace do contain trace amounts of the real medicinal compounds that the consumer is expecting, Daulaire said. Dispensing such products to patients in a diluted form may allow pathogens to develop a resistance to the drugs, rendering a once-effective medicine useless.
This is a problem that demands coordinated international action for an effective response, Daulaire said. Private companies, as manufacturers and distributors of legitimate medicines, will also have an interest in becoming part of the solution.
Both Daulaire and Rowe foresee attempts to gain greater private sector support in the search for solutions to other global health problems. Multinational companies expanding operations into developing countries, for example, need a vigorous workforce. This workforce, in turn, needs a capable public health system.