Viruses from Ebola to Dengue fever and Chikungunya pose a rising threat to public health, challenging Florida and the nation to coordinate surveillance, response and containment efforts to prevent a disease pandemic, according to infectious disease experts meeting Monday in Fort Lauderdale.
The challenges, according to experts speaking at the annual BioFlorida Conference, a life sciences industry conference, include the need for sustained funding to continuously manufacture and stockpile vaccines, the difficulty of turning political will into swift action, and the question of how to attract private investment in research and development of new therapies.
“It really takes a sustained effort in order to combat these emerging infectious diseases,’’ said Ted Ross, an influenza researcher and program director for the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute of Florida in Port St. Lucie.
Ross advocates a robust surveillance network among local, national and international health officials as “one of the best things” to identify and respond to the spread of infectious diseases.
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“We’re seeing that currently with the Ebola outbreak,” he said. “Had we been able to get onto this sooner and with more diligence in West Africa, it may not have spread outside of the region — as none of the other Ebola cases that had occurred since 1976 had really spread. So, now we’re playing catch-up.”
The spread of other illnesses has also intensified the focus on public health, including the re-emergence of Dengue fever in the Americas and the spread of the mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus in the Caribbean.
With much of the nation’s public health policy for the prevention of infectious diseases focused on vaccination, though, emerging threats with few therapies can pose a bigger challenge.
Steve Parkinson, chief executive of Lakewood-Amedex Inc., a Sarasota-based developer of new anti-infective pharmaceuticals, advocated for medical innovation to help contain the spread of infectious disease.
Researchers for his company, Parkinson said, have developed pharmaceuticals called biophosphocins with unique molecular structures that can kill many drug-resistant bacteria, and new nanoRNA technology that can prevent a virus from replicating.
“We’re now going to use this RNA technology,” Parkinson said, “to target some of the emerging problems. Everybody’s got Ebola on their lips. Yes, we’re looking at an Ebola [therapeutic] molecule.”
Monday’s panel on emerging public health concerns was originally scheduled to be moderated by John Armstrong, Florida’s surgeon general and secretary of health. But Armstrong was busy overseeing Florida’s response to Ebola and other public health threats, said Daniel Armstrong, a professor and executive vice chair of pediatrics for the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, who moderated the panel instead.
He opened the discussion by noting the urgency of emerging public health threats from Ebola and Enterovirus, which causes respiratory illness.
“Every newscast is a lead now about infectious disease, quarantines, stopping flights, how hospitals are going to handle these infectious consequences,” he said.
Later Monday, the surgeon general issued a press release from Florida’s Joint Information Center, a central communication office that is part of the state’s preparedness efforts for Ebola.
The press release said the state’s Department of Health has established a system to provide emergency “readiness packages” to hospitals that request them to supplement their existing supplies in the event of a suspected case of Ebola or other serious infectious disease.
“Hospital and healthcare professionals are an integral part of the ongoing preparedness efforts being made to protect Floridians and visitors,” said Armstrong, the surgeon general. “These readiness packages will provide additional tools to protect our patients, healthcare professionals, and communities.”
The packages containing personal protective suits, testing kits and patient supplies will be stationed with each of the state’s seven regional emergency response advisers, who can deliver them to a requesting hospital within three hours.