Sen. Isakson Speaks to the Importance of Global Health and the Need to 'Invest In It'

March 6, 2018 

The International Association of National Public Health Institutes links and strengthens the government agencies responsible for public health around the world. IANPHI improves the world’s health by leveraging the experience and expertise of its member institutes to build robust public health systems. IANPHI has successfully created, connected and transformed the way our members protect the communities they serve to prepare, respond and recover from outbreaks and other public health threats.

Serious threats like Ebola and Zika are reminders of why we do what we do because we never know when the next infectious disease will emerge to threaten our economy, our healthcare, our social structures and our very existence. It is even more important because globalization means that the next pandemic is only one plane ride away.

Support for the work that we do is needed now more than ever before. We need our governments and leaders to invest in our future by investing in our global health today.

We talked with United States Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and native Georgian, about the importance of global health to our nation and to the world.


Why is global health important?

[Sen. Isakson]: Global health is important to me for a lot of reasons, but it’s important to every single human being on the face of this earth because a pandemic, unabated, unstopped could wipe out the population or at least significantly reduce the workforce, available food supply, and national defense. It is probably the most critical thing that could happen to a nation to destabilize its security and economy and ultimately its life existence.

What do you see as the major global health threats to the United States?

[Sen. Isakson]: That is an easy pop test question after what has happened in the last couple of years. There is Zika and there is Ebola. Ebola started in West Africa, it moved quickly and made it to the United States. There were four physicians who were infected in Liberia and were sent to Emory University to recover and they all recovered. We also stopped, thanks to the work done in Africa, the spread of Ebola. It was tough to contain, and for a while it was not contained, but we finally got everybody isolated. We finally got the populace educated. There were people who volunteered and sacrificed their lives to stop what could have been a national, international, pandemic, and an international tragedy.

Through IANPHI's collaborative projects, countries are able to transform scattered and underfunded public health functions into coordinated and comprehensive public health systems.

There is no question that Zika and Ebola are the threats, but they are only the evidence of what another pandemic could be. We don’t know what the next pandemic could be. We just know there is going to be one. While we might not know what the name of it is, we know what the result of it will be. Having a vigilant effort and a coordinated effort, internationally, where all nations are focused on the healthcare of their country, and the cooperative healthcare of the world, is the most ideal thing we could possibly have.

Considering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is headquartered in Atlanta, how important is the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act to Georgians and our nation?

[Sen. Isakson]: It is important because the CDC is our nation’s health center, but quite frankly, it’s the world’s health center. It is the catalyst for international health, and for our own health and our own country. CDC is important on multiple levels. For me, it was important because I learned about it when I got elected to Congress. I went out to visit Jeff Koplan, who was then the Director of the CDC, to find out what this thing CDC really was. I had heard about it. I had read about it but I hadn’t seen it. It was in the process of being approved through a billion and a quarter infusion of capital from the federal government, as well as the fundraisers done for the CDC.

Through a Congressionally-funded cooperative agreement, IANPHI and the CDC support the strategic and operational development of the NPHIs that focus on the major public health problems affecting the country.

When I got elected, CDC on the Chamblee [campus] had gutters inside the building, not the outside. It was really economically obsolete, not a place for a health center to be. But because of the money, and the investment made by the country and people like Arlen Specter and Bernie Marcus, a lot of people made a real effort to see that it happened.

We got the money necessary to build the labs of the 21st century, and they are being used today on all kinds of things like anthrax to Ebola and everything in between. CDC is important because it’s a catalyst for good healthcare. It’s also a conduit for information. The timeliness of information in healthcare is critical. When an outbreak takes place, every second is an enemy that you lose that you don’t take advantage of. CDC is the center for getting that information out fast.

If you go to the command post in the CDC in Atlanta, you are blown away by the high technology; it looks like Cape Canaveral, Cape Kennedy and Houston Space Center in the United States of America. It is a phenomenal communications center. It is a great way to have a convocation, electronically, with experts around the world to quickly disseminate information and quickly respond to a pandemic or the threat of one.

Throughout your career as a Congressman, you have been a champion for public health and the CDC, what sparked this interest and early partnership?

[Sen. Isakson]: I would be reticent if I did not give CDC the credit. They sought me out as soon as I was elected and said, "Hey! We better get this new guy down here." That was 20 years ago. I was willing to go. I like being invited anywhere. I went and was really blown away by the capabilities that CDC had, even at that particular time. I became very interested in Africa when I worked on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Bono, of U2, and Sen. Isakson work to improve the quality of life in Africa.

I went to Africa. I've been about 10 times. I have been to Darfur, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania. In fact, Mark Green, who is now the head of USAID, was the ambassador of the United States to Tanzania when I went there. Tanzania was one of the first countries interested in setting up its own distribution center for anti-retroviral treatment from PEPFAR. One of the big problems we had at PEPFAR was that we were supplying the [anti-retroviral] treatment but we were also supplying all the manpower to deliver the medicine all over the continent of Africa. [Improvements came] because of the good people like UPS that volunteered logistics and technology, and because the countries began developing their own system, like Ethiopia, like Tanzania. Others were using manpower, their manpower, to disseminate the treatment, which puts less pressure on the United States to supply the manpower. You got African health centers and many of the countries doing the actual part of the work on the PEPFAR reaction. The good news is, we captured a runaway communicable disease. I do not know if you would call it a communicable disease, but it was a runaway disease in terms of AIDS that, at one point in time, many people who were respected for their knowledge said could threaten the existence of mankind if uncontrolled.

Sen. Isakson is pictured here in Tanzania. During the Ebola outbreak, the IANPHI member institute, National Institute of Medical Research, in Tanzania was effective in health promotion and prevention education as a way to prevent the spread of Ebola in the area.

I was at the breakfast when Bono, with ONE, made his own million-dollar contribution to PEPFAR and challenged the United States to do what it could in Africa. Now, with what he has done and what we have done with PEPFAR, we broke the infection curve. 

You look at places like the Nyumbani Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. Ten years ago, it was a cemetery for kids born to AIDS-infected mothers. Today, it's a school for kids who survived being born to AIDS-infected mothers. That's how far the benefits have gone.

It's a great story. It's a sad story. But it's a great story of success. It has a dormitory now and a school. But before you go to the dormitory, you have to go through the graveyard. Because originally, it was a cemetery for the kids who died of AIDS because they had been born to a mother who had AIDS. And now, they are being born without AIDS because of the anti-retroviral treatment. Now, they are educating them, and they have a full life ahead of them.

How important is it that our government support global health emergency and outbreak response?

[Sen. Isakson]: America has always been a leader in good things. Sometimes, we are unfortunately a leader in things that are not so good, but we try to stay away from that. But certainly, healthcare is where America is a leader in developing cures, developing research, developing a real focus on diseases, not just dealing with it.

I am delighted to be associated with anything that is improving the healthcare and the welfare of the American people, and certainly the people of my state of Georgia.

In your opinion, how were we able to prevent the spread of infectious diseases like Ebola and Zika from becoming an epidemic here in the U.S.? How do you see IANPHI as an important network for global health?

[Sen. Isakson]: Two things that are critical: one is awareness and the second is response. That is why these mini CDCs, or NPHIs, around the world, in each country around the world, are so important because you get an awareness worldwide. If something begins to happen, that doesn't look right, or looks different, or dangerous, or looks possibly like a pandemic, you can begin to get the information out right away. It wouldn't be good if you were aware but you are not capable of responding.

Patients with Ebola virus were received treatment in Emory's Serious Communicable Disease Unit. The unit was created in cooperation with the CDC. It is one of four high-level biocontainment units in the United States and was designed to treat patients with legal, contagious diseases acquired in the field or in a lab. -- Damon Meharg for Emory University

Those four isolation beds at Emory University, which they had the foresight to put in place a few years ago, became a lifesaving investment for four human beings who got Ebola in Africa. They didn’t stop the spread, but had we not had them and that capability, and 12 other isolation beds around the country, we might not have stopped it. But the fact that we had the foresight to do it, we’ve learned a good lesson and it’s saved lives. But it’s also important that we invest in that kind of capability in our country in years ahead so that if we have another radical infectious disease or some type of pandemic, we’re able to respond with isolation chambers early.

If you have the early awareness when you spot them, and you have a way to react to them, then it’s a way to deal with pandemics better than any other way I can think of. International cooperation on health and medical issues is critically important. Bacteria and diseases don’t recognize airplanes. They don’t recognize boundaries. They don’t recognize governments. They don’t recognize oceans. They just go where they want to go. They are blowing in the wind, so to speak.

You don’t know where they’re going to end up. You just have to be ready, if they end up in your backyard, to respond. We’ve been fortunate and we’ve been lucky in our country to be able to respond and catch a lot of this stuff early on. But it’s only a matter of time before the next new thing is there. We have to be ready to respond with the next new treatments to prevent a pandemic from developing and spreading.

You are currently serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the African Affairs Subcommittee. We have member institutes throughout Africa including Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Mozambique, and Ethiopia working to improve the public’s health on the continent.  How important is it for the U.S. to support global health efforts abroad?

Sen. Isakson's work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and African Affairs Subcommittee has global responsibility for health-related policy, including disease outbreak and response. The timeliness of information in healthcare is critical. When an outbreak takes place, every second is an enemy that you lose that you don't take advantage of.

[Sen. Isakson]: It's critical. The better the foreign countries are at developing their investment in healthcare, their investment in awareness, their investment in response, then the better and more powerful we can be at CDC to deliver the breakthrough and information they need to stand in the way of an outbreak, of a pandemic, or at least stop it from coming around. You almost look at them as branch offices of the CDC [NPHIs]. And, there is not a place I have been in Africa, which is where I've traveled most, where the CDC is not probably the best known American institution of anything.

They appreciate USAID. They appreciate the American companies like Coca-Cola making an investment in clean water. They appreciate those things a lot, but they really appreciate CDC because they've seen their loved ones die of AIDS.

They've seen what these runaway diseases can do. They know that prevention is a long way towards protection and protection is a long way towards eradication of things like Ebola and other infectious diseases.

It is great to represent CDC and it's great to have them and it is great to have a world now where its biggest enemy is healthcare, the lack of it, and they need to do everything they can to improve it and invest in it.

Learn more about the work Sen. Isakson is doing to improve the health of all Georgians, our nation and the world, here >> 


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