This blog post was written by Carmen Villar, MPH, Deputy Director for Strategy, Policy and Communication, at the the Center for Global Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Opinion polls show that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is one of the federal government’s most admired and trusted agencies.
Since its founding in 1946, CDC’s history as America’s premier public health agency has been tightly intertwined with its work abroad. CDC experts were on the frontlines in the efforts to eradicate smallpox, the only disease in history to be eliminated. Now CDC experts are actively engaged in current efforts to eradicate polio, a disease that once ravaged the United States and countries worldwide. Today wild polio virus remains active in only three countries: Pakistan, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, and only five cases of wild polio virus have been reported this year, which is a record low number. These encouraging results reflect a novel partnership, the Global Polio Elimination Initiative (GPEI),that holds promise for future efforts to protect people’s health.
GPEI is a public-private partnership led by national governments with five partners – the World Health Organization, Rotary International, U.S. CDC, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – who have locked arms to defeat polio. CDC’s record and commitment to global health is also evidenced in its work combatting HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, neglected tropical diseases such as River Blindness, and its more recent, and widely reported, efforts to defeat Ebola in West Africa and Zika in numerous countries.
CDC has more than 1,700 staff stationed in more than 60 countries, including scientists, disease detectives, laboratory technicians, and other experts who are on the frontlines working to detect disease outbreaks at the earliest possible moment, to respond to them decisively, and to stop them from spreading. That mission is driven by the same principles CDC uses wherever it works – rigorous science, accurate data, quality training, and strong collaboration with partners.
Yet when it all works as designed, as it often does, the results can be hard to see. The best outcomes are an absence of disease outbreaks and the accompanying fear about their impact, an abundance of healthy people who contribute to U.S. interests by supporting more stable governments and more robust economies, and a lower chance of disease erupting and spreading.
CDC’s values and guiding principles are the same as they’ve been from the beginning – working to protect Americans by rapidly detecting and containing new health threats anywhere in the world before they can come to the United States. The focus is on providing strong, effective public health systems and on training healthcare professionals who can identify outbreaks in their own countries to prevent those threats from crossing borders.
For example, CDC’s Field Epidemiology Training Program (FETP), established in 1980, has trained more than 9,000 disease detectives to date in more than 70 countries. They provide critical frontline disease detection and surveillance, and, significantly, more than 80 percent of the FETP graduates continue working in their countries, with many moving into public health leadership positions. From 2009–2014, FETP graduates took part in more than 2,000 outbreak investigations, which kept their countries, and the world, safer and healthier.
It works with countries to immunize children and adults to protect them from vaccine-preventable diseases. Preventing diseases such as polio and measles allow children and adults to live healthy and productive lives. It means laboratorians from CDC’s world class laboratories work together to provide training and technical expertise to laboratorians in other countries to upgrade and expand laboratory services. This results in accurate and reliable laboratory networks, which are essential to finding and understanding disease threats, and in using resources for maximum public health benefit.
CDC’s dedication to global health can be measured by outbreak response mobilizations, staff trained and ready for deployment, person-days of response support, ensuring that all people have access to safe water and sanitation around the world, and collaboration with global partners.
An example is CDC’s participation in the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA). Formed in 2014 with key contributions by CDC, GHSA is designed to implement the tools and practices necessary to prevent, detect, and respond to outbreaks at the earliest possible moment in countries throughout the world. To date, 31 countries are participating, with each pledging to meet universal standards for quality disease surveillance, a well-trained workforce, rapid and accurate public health laboratory capacity, and emergency response via emergency operation centers.
Another example is CDC’s Global Rapid Response Team (GRRT), a “boots-on-the-ground” program ensuring that, from a pool of 400 trained experts, 50 are on-call to travel anywhere in the world within 48 hours to confront an outbreak at its outset. The GRRT was mobilized more than 230 times in one year after it was created in 2016, and provided 8,000 person-days of response support in more than 90 outbreaks worldwide, including cholera, yellow fever, Ebola, Zika, measles, polio, and natural disasters. The GRRT also has experts in global health logistics, laboratory management and training, communication, and disease detection.With the world more connected than ever through travel and commerce, GHSA is a systematic effort to provide universal and tested standards to prevent, detect, and respond to disease outbreaks worldwide and to close gaps in these areas that allow disease to cross borders.
Taken together, all of CDC’s work abroad contributes to making the world and all Americans safer and more secure, healthier and more confident that threats to their health will be identified and resolved no matter where they live and travel.
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