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CDC Director on What Public Health Teaches Us about Resilience

A version of this post also appeared on 100 Resilient Cities.

Dr Tom Frieden

Whether he was leading the national response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic in the United States, or dealing with a citywide blackout or an emergency room patient with plague as an eight-year commissioner of the New York City Department of Health, Dr. Tom Frieden has learned a good deal about what urban resilience means and how to build it. At this year’s Innovation Forum, Dr. Frieden, currently director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shared five key lessons about resilience drawn from a career in public health.

  1. Build resilient systems: Resilience requires that everyday systems work and can be scaled up. During the H1N1 pandemic, public health officials were able to scale up the Vaccines for Children program to provide more than 320,000 vaccine shipments to doctors without a glitch.
  2. Data: Some emergencies are slow-moving. Some emergencies are invisible. Dr. Frieden says officials need a way to see what’s happening and use that data to provide information to the public.
  3. Effective communication: In an emergency, frankness, honesty, and over-communication are key. Officials need to say, “This is what we know now, here’s what we don’t know, here’s what we’re doing to try to figure it out, and here’s what you can do now to address it.”
  4. Mental health resilience: Attending to the mental health needs of the population is important. After the 9/11 attacks, Dr. Frieden’s Department of Health created a World Trade Center health registry with 71,000 people, to track their health for 20 years. While many people developed respiratory problems, the number of people unable to work due to mental health problems resulting from 9/11 was a much larger number.
  5. Infrastructure: Infrastructure is the basis of resilience. In the case of public health, it’s the infrastructure of identifying data, communicating with people, and interacting with the health care system—and it’s essential that a system can be scaled up in an emergency.

Watch Dr. Frieden’s full speech in the video below:

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