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Baker Institute Update: Is Texas prepared for a public health crisis?
April 7, 2016: In this edition
Is Texas prepared for a public health crisis?

An April 22 Baker Institute conference on “Global Health in a Globalized Texas” will focus on the state's unique vantage point on international health issues and its capacity to respond to and shape global health priorities.

Rep. Gene Green, the ranking member of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Health, will deliver the keynote address. Peter J. Hotez, fellow in disease and poverty, and Kirstin R.W. Matthews, fellow in science and technology policy, will join experts from the federal, state and local government and the medical community for a panel discussion. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

In a run-up to the conference, Hotez and Jennifer R. Herricks, postdoctoral fellow in disease and poverty, answered five key questions about the state’s readiness for global health emergencies.

1) In what ways is Texas prepared to respond to future global health crises?

Hotez: After Ebola and now Zika, we need to better recognize that Texas is a new hot zone for neglected and emerging tropical diseases (NTDs). We are at the epicenter of NTDs in the continental United States.

Herricks: Texas has great resources at its disposal, such as the largest medical center in the world — the Texas Medical Center — as well as physicians and scientists throughout the state with a wide variety of specialties and expertise, including world-renowned experts in tropical diseases at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.­

2) What are some of the state’s vulnerabilities that would contribute to the spread of infectious diseases, and what public health concerns should the state be monitoring and preparing for?

Hotez: The major vulnerabilities to tropical diseases include the state’s warm subtropical climate; the presence of unique insect vectors such as Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and kissing bugs; the fact that Texas is a gateway area between the U.S. and Latin America, in part because of the large port areas hosting increasing traffic through the Panama Canal; and extreme poverty, with 5 million Texans living below the poverty line. As a result, we have the transmission of neglected tropical diseases, including Chagas disease, toxocariasis and cysticercosis, and now we are at risk for Zika.

3) What lessons did Texas and the United States learn from the 2014 Ebola cases in Dallas?

Hotez: I think a key lesson is that we cannot rely on federal government agencies, and that we need to assume ownership and leadership at the local, city, county and state levels. Both then-Gov. Rick Perry and current Gov. Greg Abbott have responded with creating task forces to combat emerging epidemics.

Herricks: We also learned (and not for the first time) that global health issues can easily become local health issues. If we want to prevent outbreaks of diseases in Texas and the United States, we must act in a preventative, rather than reactive, manner. That means sending resources to fight outbreaks where they occur, before the disease has a chance to cross into other countries.

4) Much attention has been focused on the Zika virus outbreak in the Caribbean and Latin America. How much of a threat is Zika in Texas, and why should the state be concerned about an outbreak?

Hotez: The Texas Gulf Coast is at significant risk. We have the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, and dengue struck the Brownsville area in 2005. In 2003, Houston experienced its first dengue epidemic in many years. In the poor areas of Texas Gulf Coast cities, we have a high level of vulnerability to Zika, an issue I have been writing and speaking out on through various media outlets

Herricks: As mentioned earlier, high levels of poverty make certain populations more vulnerable. Those who cannot afford air conditioning or live in homes with inadequate window screens are more likely to be exposed to the Aedes mosquitoes during the hot summer months. The city of Houston recently implemented a program to pick up trash and debris like discarded tires from Houston neighborhoods. This will help to limit breeding grounds for the Aedes mosquitoes, but we must remain vigilant in maintaining these programs after the perceived threat is gone and continue monitoring the mosquito population for the presence of Zika and other viruses.

5) How should the Texas Legislature and Congress direct research funds and disease surveillance efforts in order to prevent endemic global health outbreaks?

Hotez: We need to follow through on HB 2055, a bill passed last year by the Texas Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Abbott, which calls for sentinel surveillance of NTDs in Texas. In addition, while we have state funding from cancer research through the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), we need to consider commensurate funding for NTDs in our state.

Herricks: HB 2055 will enable the state to gather high-quality data on the number of people suffering from NTDs so that a response can be mounted by the medical and research communities. Additional funding will ensure that this response is strong and effective.

Learn more at the global health conference on April 22. The conference is co-sponsored by the Baker Institute Center for Health and Biosciences, the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Global Health Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

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Upcoming Events
  • Ice and the Sky. The Baker Institute Science & Technology Policy Program and the Consulate General of France in Houston will host a screening of the 2015 French documentary “Ice and the Sky,” which focuses on pioneering climate scientist Claude Lorius and his study of Antarctic ice in the 1950s. A Q&A session will follow. 6:30 pm April 7
  • Director's Lecture Series: The Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations. His Excellency José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, Cuba’s ambassador to the United States, is the keynote speaker for this Director’s Lecture Series event. 5:30 pm April 12
  • U.S.-Iran Relations at a Crossroads. The Baker Institute Centers for the Middle East and Energy Studies will co-host a one-day colloquium to discuss U.S.-Iran relations. The featured speaker is Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, former under secretary of state for political affairs, who played a critical role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. She will be joined by expert panels addressing the internal dynamics shaping U.S.-Iran relations and their impact on the regional landscape, as well as Iran’s future role in international energy markets. 8:30 am April 14 
  • Arab Uprisings: How Dictators and Jihadis Struck Back. Jean-Pierre Filiu will discuss his book, "From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadist Legacy,” which describes how authoritarian regimes are methodically crushing Arab dissent, and hopes for democracy. 6:00 pm April 18 
  • From the 'What?' to the 'How?' in the Water-Energy Nexus: Challenges, Opportunities and Lessons Learned. Diego Rodriguez, senior economist at the World Bank and team task leader for Thirsty Energy, will discuss existing challenges, opportunities and lessons learned in the implementation of a nexus approach for governments and the private sector. 6:00 pm April 20 
  • Global Health in a Globalized Texas. This conference will focus on Texas’ unique vantage on international health issues. Experts will discuss advancements in the state that can shape local and global health priorities, including emergency response, research and development, and service delivery. Participants will also examine the U.S. response to Ebola in 2014 and recommend alternative strategies to cope with future global health threats. 8:00 am April 22
  • An Address by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry. The Baker Institute will host the Honorable John F. Kerry for an address on the role of religion in foreign policy. This private event is open to Rice University students, faculty and staff and members of the Baker Institute Roundtable and Emerging Leaders only. 6:30 pm April 26
  • How Might Obamacare Change in 2017? Vivian Ho, director of the Baker Institute Center for Health and Biosciences, will discuss the current status of the U.S. health care system under Obamacare, and consider what modifications might be expected under a new Democratic or Republican administration. 12 pm June 3
  • The 2016 Battle for Control of the White House: National Trends and Consequences for Texas. At this Roundtable Young Professionals event, political science fellow Mark Jones will offer an informative and nonpartisan take on the presidential election and address how the election will shape Texas’ future. Enjoy an evening of friendly political conversation with other young professionals and a buffet of hors d'oeuvres and craft beer at Karbach Brewing Co. 6:30 pm August 23

For a complete list, visit our event page.

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Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy is a nonpartisan, independent think tank in Houston, Texas. The institute's fellows and scholars conduct research and collaborate with experts from academia, government, the media, business and private organizations on domestic and foreign policy issues with the goal of bridging the gap between the theory and practice of public policy.
 

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