Sunday, November 4, 2007

Making sure no one is left behind

When public health emergencies strike, how do we meet the needs of different populations, and in particular, people living with disabilities?

Those attending yesterday’s Student Assembly meeting on improving public health preparedness systems, heard from Eileen Elias, MEd, deputy director of the Office on Disability at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Leon Larson, senior program analyst in the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, on just that subject. The presenters described the limited mechanisms currently in place at the federal, state and private levels to enforce comprehensive preparedness planning that addresses the unique challenges facing people with disabilities.

Elias pointed to Hurricane Katrina as a case-in-point for the major challenges people with disabilities may face during emergencies. When Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast, Elias said, many people with disabilities were separated from their caregivers, service animals, needed prescriptions and other social supports during evacuations and while they stayed at shelters.

However, to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities are met when future emergencies occur, HHS’s Office on Disability has formed a partnership with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. The two offices are jointly offering emergency planning and response documents, including a “shelter assessment tool” and an “emergency planner toolkit,” as a part of their efforts.

During the question-and-answer session with Elias, Student Assembly Chair-elect Tamar Klaiman noted that Hurricane Katrina as well as the attacks of Sept. 11 not only “brought home” the reality of disasters striking on American soil, but also led to increased funding for research into public health emergency preparedness, providing the necessary resources to develop an effective knowledge base.

Visit the APHA Annual Meeting site to find more scientific sessions on public health and emergency preparedness.

— A.B.

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