Tillerson: ‘Disease detectives’ stop outbreaks

Having a global team of “disease detectives” who catch outbreaks of infectious diseases early is imperative for a healthy world, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.

U.S.-trained disease detectives have investigated more than 650 outbreaks of infectious diseases in the last four years, helping to prevent dangerous illnesses from spreading, the secretary said in October at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Grand Challenges” annual meeting in Washington.

When the Democratic Republic of the Congo in May identified a cluster of suspected Ebola cases, for example, disease detectives deployed to trace the disease and provide technical support. “Their fast and coordinated action contained the potentially devastating outbreak to only eight cases of Ebola, only four deaths and no spread outside of the DRC,” the secretary said.

This kind of global teamwork is central to the Global Health Security Agenda and is why the U.S. supports extending the agenda until 2024, Tillerson said. The agenda was launched in 2014 shortly before cases of Ebola were found in Africa. It seeks to create a worldwide system to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease.

Women dancing in celebration in the street (© AP Images)
Health workers celebrating when Sierra Leone was declared Ebola-free in 2015 (© AP Images)

Since 2014, the U.S. has supported the Global Health Security Agenda with more than $1 billion in 17 at-risk countries. Part of that money helped train 370 disease detectives worldwide. Programs are built on the model of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Epidemic Intelligence Service. The detectives’ skills have stopped other outbreaks in their tracks.

The legacy of the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak, which killed thousands of people in West Africa and provoked fears of worldwide pandemic, illustrates how health security is national security, Tillerson said.

Meeting health challenges

The secretary said the U.S. approach to global health challenges reflects the U.S. overall approach to development. “There can be no greater measure of success than witnessing a country able to stand on its own two feet,” Tillerson said. “Our goal for U.S. development assistance is that it will serve as a bridge to the day that recipients can rise economically and achieve sustainable prosperity for themselves.”

The secretary’s comments echoed those of President Trump at a September meeting with African leaders at the United Nations. “We cannot have prosperity if we’re not healthy,” Trump said.

The United States will continue to invest in building health security. “I want to emphasize that generosity is at the core of who we are as Americans,” Tillerson said. In times of humanitarian crisis, the United States provides lifesaving assistance. “And we will remain to take on that task.”