Tropical Storm Isaac: CDC is ready.

As Hurricane Isaac came ashore yesterday on the U.S. Gulf Coast, the nation watched and hoped that the aftermath of this storm would be much different than Hurricane Katrina, which roared through Louisiana and Mississippi on the same date seven years earlier. Thankfully, Isaac’s damage, while quite serious, was not nearly as destructive as Katrina.

While most people understand the role of first responders – firefighters, police, and emergency medical personnel – the work of public health experts before, during and after a crisis is less known, but equally important.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as the nation's lead public health agency, plays a vital role in protecting Americans from the health consequences of disasters. Even before a disaster strikes, CDC provides funding and leadership for public health preparedness planning at the local, state and national levels.

Every day, from CDC’s Emergency Operations Center, experts monitor potential threats and are at-the-ready to mobilize the appropriate staff and supplies if called on by a state for help. And while CDC experts are often among the responders on the frontlines of a disaster, CDC’s unique expertise comes into play soon after the initial response, as the threat of disease outbreaks, tainted water supplies, chemical exposures and other health risks emerge.

Survivors may be unable to return to their homes and living in shelters where infectious diseases can spread quickly. Flood waters can contain hidden dangers, and persistently moist conditions can grow toxic mold.

There are many examples of CDC's response to recent disasters:

  • CDC investigated fungal infections sickening victims of the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri
  • CDC monitored health of workers involved in 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill cleanup                            
  • CDC helped prevent 7,000 cholera deaths after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti
  • CDC was called in to help Japanese health officials assess potential health risks of Fukushima nuclear reactors damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami

When a disaster involves significant structural damage to a region, as with Hurricane Katrina, a key focus for CDC is helping local and state health departments get back on their feet. CDC’s partners at the local and state level are vital to protecting the health of local communities as well as alerting CDC to potential threats that could affect the U.S. population more broadly. CDC works with state and local partners to restore their capacity to lead local efforts to prevent and control disease, monitor water quality, implement child immunization programs and keep their communities safe and healthy.

This week, CDC experts watched Hurricane Isaac carefully (view photos of CDC's Emergency Operations Center) and continue to stand ready to help if needed. Whether or not CDC's help is required on the ground, CDC is ready.

September is emergency preparedness month. Each of us has a responsibility to get prepared. CDC has guidance and planning documents to help individuals, employers, and communities plan for emergencies of all kinds - whether natural disaster, pandemic or terrorist attack. (Emergency Preparedness Resources for Business | Individuals and Families)

As the president and CEO of the CDC Foundation, I am proud to help private-sector organizations support CDC's work in emergency preparedness and response, which is just one facet of CDC's broader work to protect us all from threats to health and safety. And I want to say "thank you" to our dedicated public health colleagues who are working to protect health in the Gulf Coast region.

Charles Stokes is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.