BANGOR, Maine — A Belfast-based epidemiologist and family physician who investigated infectious disease outbreaks for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday that public hysteria and paranoia are not the answer when such crises emerge.
A case in point was the recent furor over Ebola. Maine made international headlines when Kaci Hickox, a nurse who until recently lived in Fort Kent, was quarantined after returning from treating Ebola patients in West Africa despite having no symptoms of the disease.
As Dr. Peter Millard sees it, there is a better way.
“We’re going to have epidemics. Epidemics are always going to be with us. We’re going to have a bad epidemic eventually and if we don’t pull together and use science as a basis for our response, we’re going to be in big trouble,” Millard said Monday evening during a lecture in Husson University’s Kominsky Auditorium.
With regard to Maine’s level of preparedness for handling epidemics, Millard, who recently returned to the United States after a five-year stint as a professor at the Catholic University of Mozambique Medical School, had this to say:
“It’s terrible. We have no state epidemiologist. We have no assistant state epidemiologist,” he said.
While many of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s functions are fueled with federal dollars, Millard said, “they’ve laid off a lot of people. I think we’re really poorly prepared now in Maine, which is a shame because we historically have been pretty well prepared, but I think we’re in really bad shape now.
“We don’t have the leadership in the governor’s office,” he said. “Leadership is really important in public health. People, they don’t think it’s important, so that’s when leadership is especially important.”
State health officials, however, took exception to Millard’s assessment of the situation.
“Maine is well-prepared for a disease outbreak, and recent results speak for themselves,” John Martins, the state’s public health information officer, said Tuesday, citing as an example Maine CDC’s recent response to a sudden onset of illness at a Portland school recently.
“Maine’s response to Ebola was effective, and its protocols offered an additional level of protection for Maine people,” Martins said.
“As is the case in any organization when a key vacancy exists, the state epidemiologist’s work has been reassigned and continues to get done. The responsibilities are currently being fulfilled through a contract with experts here in Maine,” he said. “We plan to fill the position and interviews will begin shortly.“
The state’s disease control and prevention staff also includes eight epidemiologists, two federal CDC fellows, an epidemiology program manager and a coordinator who focuses on healthcare acquired infections, Martins said.
“While we look forward to the selection of a new state epidemiologist, it is imperative that all spending continues to be assessed to ensure efficient and effective use, regardless of the funding source,” Martins said, adding, “this administration is committed to financial accountability, and we recognize there’s room for improvement. To say that Maine is ill-prepared for a disease outbreak because there is no state epidemiologist is an insult to the hard-working professionals who do this work daily.”
Also during his address, Millard said there are much worse threats than Ebola.
While Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with blood and other body fluids, other diseases are transmitted through the respiratory system, as are influenza or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, he said.
“The respiratory ones are the scary ones. With measles, if a person with measles enters a room and nobody is immunized, everybody in the room is going to get measles,” he said. “That’s how easily it is transmitted.”
Millard credits a timely, ethical, science-based approach for the country’s “big close miss” with SARS in 2003-04. He said good preparation was key.
“We all worked together. People didn’t get hysterical. They recognized the seriousness of of the situation. The whole world’s health agencies worked together. We were very lucky. It was a close call,” he said.
“If everybody is running around doing this hysterical thing, like they did with Ebola, we’re going to be in serious trouble. We all have to work together because it’s going to be a very challenging situation,” Millard said.