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How The Government Handles Public Health Threats


We are in the throes of a flu epidemic. Despite public health warnings and the CDC urging the public to get vaccinated, the virus is still spreading. Flu outbreaks are among the most vexing public health challenges. Back in 1976, a deadly swine flu virus emerged, and in response, the government launched a national campaign to vaccinate every single American. Here's an ad from that campaign.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Joe brought it home from the office. He gave it to Betty and one of his kids and to Betty's mother. She gave it to a cab driver, a ticket agent...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If a swine flu epidemic comes, this is how it could spread. Get a shot of protection - the swine flu shot.

MARTIN: Oh, sounds ominous. Unfortunately, though, the vaccine to that swine flu had terrible side effects, and the fallout hurt future government efforts to vaccinate the public. So a lot of you had questions about how the government responds to public health crises and the current flu, in particular. We put them to commentator Cokie Roberts. And she joins us each week to answer your questions about how the government works.

Hey, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. I hope you don't have the flu.

MARTIN: I know, right?

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Wash our hands, wash our hands.


MARTIN: The first question gets right to the heart of the issue. Let's listen.

EVE FRANTZ: This is Eve Frantz from Fairfax, Calif. And my question is, what is the government doing to prevent epidemics?

ROBERTS: Well, you heard it in that PSA from 1976. It's basically the same message, which is vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate, and then practical things like wash your hands, don't go to work sick, stay away from sick people, and then if you do get the flu, to take the antiviral drugs that are prescribed.

MARTIN: OK, so those drugs - that gets to our next question. It comes on Twitter from Philip Cole. He asks, how are they helping to mitigate the critical shortage of IV fluids and drugs that negatively affect patient care in every hospital throughout the U.S.?

ROBERTS: This is a very serious problem. In the short term, Hurricane Maria shut down production facilities in Puerto Rico that make not only the IV bags, but also the saline solutions that go into them.

MARTIN: Right.

ROBERTS: ...Plus, some drug manufacturing. Now, the FDA is working to get those plants up to full capacity. Meanwhile, they're importing from other places like Brazil, and they're looking at various strategies to see if, for instance, they can safely extend the expiration dates of the saline solutions. So that's the short-term problem. The long-term problem is generic drug manufacturers stop making drugs that don't make money, and then it makes them hard to find.

MARTIN: Right. OK, let's get to our next listener.

HECTOR RAMIREZ: My name is Hector Ramirez. And I would like to know if the government utilizes cultural- and linguistic-appropriate strategies when handling epidemics and other health risks. And how are these practices inclusive of the needs of people with disabilities?

MARTIN: It's a good question.

ROBERTS: It is. And I learned in researching the answer that in 2001, the Department of Health and Human Services actually promulgated standards for any health care organization which receives federal funds, which is basically all of them because of Medicare and Medicaid. It says they have to have language assistance programs, including interpreters. They have to have signage in appropriate language. They have to do a whole variety of things to try to be culturally and linguistically inclusive.

MARTIN: OK, our last question is from Elaina Martin. She was unable to record it because she has the flu.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But here's what she wants to know. Is the CDC currently adequately staffed and funded?

ROBERTS: Lots of concern about that. There are hundreds of vacancies in the CDC. And just last week, the director, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, had to resign because of her holdings of tobacco and health care stocks. And there's a lot of disarray. There's been an attempt to get rid of the Prevention and Public Health Fund. That keeps coming up in various bills. So that's a problem for the CDC. What tends to happen is great, big amounts of money go in for a particular disease, like Ebola or Zika, and then that money runs out, and they start all over again.

MARTIN: Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work. You can email us those questions at askcokie@npr.org or you can tweet us with the #AskCokie. Cokie, keep washing those hands. Stay well, lady.

ROBERTS: (Laughter) All right, you too, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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