Recent events in various countries have caused concerns about the ability of governments and communities to respond to disasters and the threats to public health that can accompany them. Many governments have prepared plans for dealing with imaginable disasters. However, some potential catastrophes are still ignored and the potential scope of others has not been fully addressed. Here are five major threats to public health due to their likelihood and the present inability of anyone in the public health care establishment to stop them.
The events following the tsunami in Japan at the Fukushima nuclear power plant alarmed many people around the world. Until then, nuclear meltdown had largely been a topic for films and books. The disaster at Chernobyl in the 1980’s was blamed on poor management. When a meltdown occurred in a country as carefully managed as Japan, other nuclear powers began to wonder if it could happen to them, too. People in the United States began taking iodine pills in the mistaken belief that this would protect them from the effects of radiation. In fact, there is little anyone in or out of the government can do for you in these situations.
Each year sees a new development in flu strains and each year people worry that a new flu epidemic will occur because the medical profession will not know how to combat it. In the United States alone, seasonal flu kills some 40,000 people. The victims are mostly aged, already ill or infants. When flu strains have threatened to jump into the human population from an animal species, such as chickens or pigs, public health officials are able to do little more than quarantine victims and hope for the best. Should the next outbreak spread to multiple areas before authorities can react, there may be no way to contain a virus to which there is no vaccine.
Government at various levels has handled the possibility of earthquake in the United States very well over the last century. Since the 1906 quake in San Francisco, methods of response and preparation have improved considerably. Even powerful earthquakes, such as the one that struck Oakland in 1989, killed far less than the thousands that often die in less prepared countries. In the US, however, there are two unaddressed possibilities. The West Coast is still waiting for a massive earthquake which scientists know is possible but has not occurred since preparations improved beginning in the middle of the 20th century. There is virtually no preparation in the Midwest and scientists have determined that extremely powerful earthquakes, while rare, do impact this area occasionally.
4. Water supply
Farming techniques on land that would otherwise not be arable have brought food to the plates of many people around the world. However, these same techniques have caused an inevitable and unaddressed buildup of the salt content in the soil beneath these farm fields. The salt has leached in great concentrations into the water supplies. If a large portion of the country suddenly is without its customary water supply, there is no known way to address the disastrous results.
5. Antibiotic Failure
Diseases of every sort continue to develop and adapt to human defenses, both biological and medical. However, scientists are no longer discovering new antibiotics. Already, some strains of tuberculosis and staph infections have no known remedy. As other diseases develop strains that are immune to antibiotic defenses, millions could be left to weather the ravages of unstoppable diseases.
Melvin Baker is a public health administrator and guest contributor at MPHOnline.org, a site that reviews and evaluates online mph programs. Photo by KOMUnews