05.17.11

Statement of Chairman Tom Harkin at the HELP Committee Hearing: “A Nation Prepared: Strengthening Medical and Public Health Preparedness and Response”

*As Prepared for Delivery*

"I am pleased to convene this hearing today on a very important issue—defending our Nation against public health threats. 

"Such threats are diverse in origin and include exposure to chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear agents.  Sometimes these threats occur naturally—the 2009 H1N1 pandemic influenza, for example—or they can be the result of malicious intent—such as the intentional release of anthrax in 2001.  A recent and very challenging example is the radiation leak that occurred at the nuclear plant damaged by Japan’s massive earthquake.

"It’s not just known threats that place the health and well-being of Americans at risk; there are just as many emerging or unknown threats against which protection is critical.  Because the impact of these threats could be catastrophic, it is imperative that we continue to strengthen our Nation’s ability to adequately prepare for and appropriately respond to a public health emergency. 

"Building our Nation’s response capacity requires close collaboration among federal, state and local governments; hospitals and health care providers; businesses; schools; indeed, all Americans.  I have long taken the federal government’s role in being prepared for a public health emergency—public health preparedness as it is called—very seriously.  We have made tremendous progress in preparedness during the last decade, but more still needs to be done.

"One important aspect of public health preparedness is the advanced development and procurement of medical countermeasures.  These are the vaccines, therapies, and diagnostics needed to prevent or respond to a bioterrorism event or other public health emergency.

"In an effort to ensure that we have the appropriate medical countermeasures, we need to continue to support innovative research into promising new products and ensure that products are readily available during a time of emergency.

"We also need to address the scientific challenges of identifying safe and effective medical countermeasures when human trials are not available or ethical.  Such scientific challenges pose regulatory issues that we will hear more about from our distinguished panel of witnesses. 

"Another important aspect of preparedness is our communities’ ability to prepare for and respond to a public health threat.  State and local public health departments have made tremendous progress in their ability to detect emerging threats and respond to such threats at a moment’s notice while maintaining every day operations.  But sustaining this progress requires significant resources and continuing investments. We cannot expect a robust emergency response if health departments lack adequate support to have systems in place before disaster strikes.

"Local preparedness also involves the work that is occurring both within and between hospitals and health care providers to provide for the tremendous acute health care needs of those affected by a large scale medical or public health emergency.

"Underlying all of our preparedness activities is the issue of how we ensure that our most vulnerable citizens will be protected should disaster strike. We know that many populations—including individuals with disabilities, seniors, and children—may have unique needs that we have the responsibility to address during a public health emergency.  In the past, when faced with catastrophic events, we have too often seen such needs go unmet.  Now we must use lessons learned to ensure more efficient, effective, and equitable responses in the future. 

"The purpose of this hearing is to learn about the significant progress our Nation has made in preparing for and responding to public health threats and challenges and barriers that may exist.  It is even more important, however, to discuss ways in which we can use lessons learned to create a stronger, more prepared Nation.  I look forward to hearing suggestions from our distinguished witnesses on ways to strengthen our public health preparedness as this Committee begins its work on reauthorizing the Pandemic All-Hazards Preparedness Act—also known as PAHPA— during this Congressional session."

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