A national “culture of preparedness”
By Doug Meckes DVM, Auburn University 2005-06 AVMA Congressional Fellow in the Office of Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE)
In 2005, when I accepted an offer to serve as a Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow® in the Office of Senator Hagel (NE), I left my veterinary practice and with my wife moved from North Carolina to begin an adventure in the nation's capitol. That experience led me to a position as a lobbyist for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and then to the Office of Health Affairs (OHA) in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). I now work to ensure our country's ability to respond to and recover from public health impacts of "significant incidents" -- from violent extremism to pandemic disease to violent weather -- that impact communities around the country and around the world. A recurring theme of my work is the "culture of preparedness".
You may wonder what a former country veterinarian had to offer the federal government. An earlier foray into local politics as an elected town commissioner demonstrated to me the value of engaging in the political process and the opportunities of our democratic system. I learned that responsive, well-informed policy requires input from all stakeholders and that solid science is a critical part of the mix.
I was intrigued to apply my training in medicine and health science beyond my veterinary practice in broader service at the national level. Under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with sponsorship from the American Veterinary Medical Association, I joined a class of more than 150 Science & Technology Policy Fellows from across America (as one of the oldest members I that cohort) who felt the same calling to serve our country.
My fellowship and experiences as a lobbyist with AVMA provided an ideal backdrop for my current activities in the Office of Health Affairs, where I joined a remarkable group of dedicated staff. They represent a wide array of public, animal, and environmental health professionals who have developed a scientifically based health "preparedness" architecture to ensure the security of the nation and the ability to respond to and recover from medical and public health impacts of adverse or catastrophic incidents. We are working together with federal partners, state, local, and tribal governments and the private sector to stay ahead of this public health challenge.
Among the issues our office has dealt with is the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus. The U.S. government (Health and Humans Services, Department of Agriculture, DHS and others) has invested time and resources for several years to plan for another influenza pandemic. The three 20th century pandemics showed that outbreaks can occur in multiple waves and, in fact, the H1N1 virus is just completing its second wave. The idea of health "preparedness" has served the country well during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. DHS' most important goal was to keep the nation prepared and safe during the pandemic, when everyone around the world faced risk of illness. DHS and its federal partners sought to inform everyone of what could happen, understand how to lessen its impact, and of the necessity to begin preparation for the pandemic. This ideal of a "culture of preparedness" goes far beyond health pandemics, and is promoted by components within DHS from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Office of Infrastructure Protection. Preparedness has never been of greater importance for our nation. Almost daily we read of incidents that affect states and entire regions as well as the nation, and have global impact as well.
As my wife and I reflect on our time in Washington and contemplate a return to North Carolina to be near our family, especially our first grandson, we feel even more powerfully our personal responsibility to help ensure a "culture of preparedness." It's a lesson we hope to pass on.
As of December 2009: Douglas Meckes, DVM, is Acting Director of the Food, Agriculture and Veterinary Defense Division, in the WMD and BioDefense Section of the Office of Health Affairs at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Disclaimer: The perspectives and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, the U.S. Government, or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.