A new strain of meningitis leaped from Europe into Latin America and then used Oregon as a gateway to the United States, sickening dozens of Oregonians before anyone knew it was there.
Now the government is fighting back, starting the nation’s first early-warning system for these new health threats with help from four states that will try to detect exotic germs.
“This country is woefully unprepared to deal with new emerging pathogens,” said Dr. David Fleming, Oregon’s state epidemiologist.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is starting “emerging infections programs” in Oregon, California, Connecticut and Minnesota. They will tackle such underfunded health threats as food-borne illnesses, super bacteria and the meningitis just uncovered in Oregon.
By spring, the CDC also hopes to pay for new disease tracking in at least eight other states, buy vital equipment to test for new killers and train workers to recognize the bugs.
“It’s a different approach and nobody’s exactly sure how it will pan out, but … ultimately the hope is to be able to prevent people from getting these various illnesses,” said Dr. Arthur Reingold of the University of California, Berkeley, who is helping run that state’s program.
Infectious diseases are on the rise. New ones evolve from animals, mutate or migrate from other countries. Old ones, such as tuberculosis, are returning because of drug resistance, homelessness and overcrowding.
But the nation has no way to warn doctors when a disease is about to strike, so the CDC last spring planned a $75 million global sentinel system. Last fall, when the CDC won $6.7 million to fight emerging infections in fiscal 1995, it began phasing in the network.
All four states will track invasive bacteria such as Group A streptococcus, commonly called “flesheating bacteria,” which made headlines around the world last year. They’ll also analyze unexplained deaths in previously healthy people.