Public Health Newswire interviewed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Acting Director Anne Schuchat, MD, on the state of public health and the agency’s plans for 2018.

As CDC tackles an ongoing and severe flu season, continues its response to the opioid crisis and plans for public health emergencies, Schuchat reaffirms the agency’s commitment to critical science and providing health information that protects Americans.

Q: As you begin another stint as acting director, what priority issues do you hope to tackle?

CDC Director Anne Schuchat

CDC Acting Director Anne Schuchat

A: We are currently in the midst of a challenging and active flu season, one that has caused too many deaths and hospitalizations. This year is also the centennial of the deadly 1918 flu pandemic, and these are both a reminder that we must stay vigilant about deadly and unpredictable infectious diseases like flu, and also be prepared for the next pandemic.

Antibiotic resistance is another critical public health concern, threatening our healthcare system and undermining our ability to heal and cure. Each year, at least 2 million Americans become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and at least 23,000 people die as a result. Although we – as a nation – have made progress toward optimal prescribing and use of antibiotics for patients, there is still room for improvement.

And finally, one of the biggest health threats facing the United States is the opioid overdose epidemic. Almost 100 Americans are dying each day from opioid overdoses, in every community across the nation. That number includes both prescription opioids and illegal opioids, such as heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl. And overdose deaths are just the tip of the iceberg, considering the number of people already using heroin and misusing prescription opioids. This problem didn’t occur overnight, and we won’t get out of it overnight, but addressing the epidemic remains a CDC priority.

Q: In 2017, Americans were confronted with a severe hurricane season and major natural disasters. What was CDC’s role in reacting to these natural disasters, and how is the agency planning for future emergencies?

A: Last year was incredibly difficult, with three major, back-to-back hurricanes devastating parts of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Even today, some people are still without power or homes and communities are recovering their public health capacities. CDC continues to support coordinated response and recovery efforts, to help state and territorial partners repair damaged public health systems, and to assess the public health impact of the storms. Recovery can and will continue to be challenging, but we are committed to supporting these states and territories for as long as it takes.

Preparedness for any emergency starts with the basics: a strong foundation in epidemiology, laboratory science and surveillance. Having that foundation in place, and learning from previous experience, makes us better prepared for the next threat.

Q: Over the past two years, Americans have watched the rise of opioid-related deaths, addiction and harm unfold in their communities. What does the CDC response to the opioid crisis look like in 2018?

A: Ever since CDC data revealed the extent of America’s epidemic of opioid overdose deaths, CDC has been at the forefront of efforts to combat the crisis. Our goal is to prevent opioid overdoses, as well as the other negative health effects caused by this epidemic, such as addiction, neonatal abstinence syndrome (which affects newborns exposed to opiates in their mothers’ wombs), and infectious diseases associated with injection drug use (for example, hepatitis C and HIV).

We are addressing opioids in three critical ways: improving data quality and tracking trends to better understand and respond to the epidemic; strengthening state efforts, such as enhancing prescription drug monitoring programs; and supporting healthcare providers and health systems with guidance, data and tools on how to safely manage patient needs and improve opioid prescribing. Last year, we launched the Rx Awareness communication campaign to help people understand the risks of prescription opioids, and we are partnering with many others on other communication efforts.

We know this problem isn’t going away soon. CDC research recently found that for the second year in a row, life expectancy for Americans declined – a troubling trend linked primarily to the drug overdose epidemic. The findings suggest that if the opioid crisis continues, the U.S. stands to lose unprecedented numbers of people in their productive prime.

The opioid epidemic continues to grow nationwide, but we will continue to work closely with other partners and federal agencies, and to support states as they scale up prevention efforts to fight this crisis and save lives.

Q: This flu season is proving to be severe. What is CDC doing to help the nation prepare for and respond to the flu?

A: This flu season continues to be particularly challenging – with much of the country experiencing widespread and intense flu activity. Flu is incredibly difficult to predict, and we are working around the clock to protect Americans from it. We continue to recommend getting the flu vaccine. While flu vaccines are far from perfect, they are the best way to prevent getting sick from flu – and it’s still not too late to get one. CDC is continually working to improve the vaccines that we have and finding ways to help Americans reduce their risk of getting sick. Also, for people who are very sick with flu – or who are at high-risk of serious complications, such as children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with heart or lung disease – we recommend prompt treatment with antiviral medications. Although there have been spot shortages of antiviral drugs in some places experiencing high flu activity, CDC has been working closely with the commercial supply chain and pharmacies to address gaps in the market and increase access to brand product when the antiviral generics aren’t available.

Q: What do you anticipate being the biggest public health challenges for our country in 2018?

A: We know that infectious disease threats, antimicrobial resistance, global health security and opioids will continue to be critical public health issues. But regardless of the nature of the threat, CDC remains committed to working 24/7 to keep America safe, healthy and secure. We will continue to conduct critical science and provide health information that protects our nation against expensive and dangerous health threats, and respond quickly when they happen.