U prof stresses planning for flu

Jerret Raffety

University professor Michael Osterholm has spent his career raising awareness of public health preparedness, particularly in the area of pandemic influenzas in recent years.

Osterholm, who is also the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and associate director for the Department of Homeland Security National Center for Food Protection and Defense, wrote in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs journal that pandemic flu has always “posed the greatest threat of a worldwide calamity caused by infectious disease.”

That threat is especially relevant today, he maintained, because even a mild pandemic could kill millions of people.

Osterholm said pandemic influenzas are particularly dangerous because of the number of deaths from a lack of vaccines, and because of the fear and panic those deaths would create.

“(During a pandemic influenza) many people will actually advocate shutting down borders, shutting down travel and trade, and when that happens, the global economy comes to (a) screeching halt,” he said.

Osterholm’s areas of focus for preparedness in public health have been diverse, largely based on his expertise in epidemiology and including public policy and bioterrorism.

A year before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Osterholm published a best-selling book stressing the need for preparedness for bioterrorist attacks.

From 2001 to early 2005, Osterholm served as a special advisor to Tommy Thompson, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, on issues related to bioterrorism and public health preparedness.

Thompson said Osterholm was chosen for his broad knowledge base and experience.

“Michael stands for a better-prepared America against bioterrorism and infectious diseases like avian flu,” Thompson said. “Avian flu is something that frightens me, and Michael has been sort of a spiritual leader in that area.”

Osterholm has served 24 years at the Minnesota Department of Health, including 15 years as a Minnesota state epidemiologist. In addition, he is a member of several Institute of Medicine committees, such as Food Safety and Production to Consumption.

As public-health professionals look to the future, they will concentrate increasingly on a rapidly growing world population and a large aging population, Osterholm said.

“With increased crowding and increases in poverty throughout much of the developing world, you’ll see an ever-growing problem with things like infectious diseases, partially because of lack of adequate food and water and the basic sanitation,” he said.

John Finnegan, dean for the University’s School of Public Health, said Osterholm’s role in the national and global-public health arena could be described in an old story told among medical professionals.

In the story, a physician and an epidemiologist are walking along a swollen river, and they see a body floating in it. They wade in, retrieve the body and resuscitate the victim. The two are happy they have just saved a life and keep walking. A short time later, they find another body floating in the river. This time, the physician jumps in while the epidemiologist runs upstream.

The physician shouts, “Wait, you’ve got to help me!”

The epidemiologist replies, “You’re on your own, doc, I’m on my way upstream to find out why people keep falling in!”

“Public health works upstream, and the acute care medical systems work downstream – you need them both,” Finnegan said. “Guys like Mike Osterholm, in the infectious disease arena, are going upstream and saying, ‘Look, we know infectious disease events are going to happen, so if we get a really bad one, like this avian flu pandemic, here’s what we need to do to be really prepared for that.’ “