Lessons learned in public health emergency management: personal reflections.

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Abstract

Multiple environmental, ecological, and socio-political forces are converging to increase the occurrence of both natural and technological disasters. Ten forces are of most concern in this regard. These are: 1) global warming, with its consequent weather extremes and climate changes; 2) continued rapid human population growth and concomitant increased urbanization; 3) decreased bio-diversity and consequent ecological fragility; 4) deforestation and loss of natural habitat for animal species, with resultant greater overlap of human and animal habitats, human exposure to animal pathogens, and other ecological perturbations; 5) increased technological development throughout the world (especially in developing countries with their typically immature safety programs); 6) globalization and increased population mobility; 7) sub-national religious and ethnic conflicts, and their potential for conflict escalation and large scale displacement of populations; 8) the collapse of several major countries and consequent unraveling of national identity and social order; 9) the rise of terrorism; and 10) dramatic advances in the science and technology of computing, communications, biotechnology, and genomics. This paper describes 10 lessons learned relative to the public health aspects of emergency management, especially as they pertain to disasters. 1) Planning pays; 2) A bad situation can be made worse by inappropriate responses; 3) Most life saving interventions will occur before the disaster happens and immediately afterwards by local action; 4) Public health emergency management is not a democratic process; 5) Psychological impacts are usually greater than anticipated; 6) Communications and information management are vital, but often are the weak link in the response chain; 7) Collaboration and partnerships are essential; 8) Unsolicited volunteers and aid are inevitable and must be planned for and managed; 9) Never assume anything, and always expect the unexpected; and 10) Post-event evaluation is important, and must be coordinated. The paramount lesson learned from past emergencies is that the untoward impact of these events can be anticipated and significantly ameliorated by appropriate planning and preparation. On the other hand, preparation for emergency events has deteriorated because of health-care financial constraints, and resources to support planning and needed infrastructure have diminished. Given these realities, the major unresolved challenge is how to ensure that planning for the common good is supported and, in fact, gets done.

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