"Preparedness is not an event, it's a continuous process," Dr. Julie L. Gerberding told the annual meeting of the Institute of Medicine. "We're more prepared than we were yesterday ... we'll be more prepared in the future."
Citing the anthrax attacks, West Nile virus, SARS, monkeypox and the smallpox vaccination program, Gerberding said a main lesson that stands out is the need for consistent, fast and credible communication.
She said her agency is working on faster ways to detect rapidly moving threats like the SARS virus — sudden acute respiratory syndrome — that began in China and spread worldwide early last year.
Gerberding said experts are unsure if there will be another SARS outbreak this winter, but added that she is optimistic that if it does come back health authorities are prepared to move more quickly.
Besides faster detection she said a focus is on faster science to deal with emerging threats.
As an example, she cited development of a blood test for the West Nile virus to prevent it from being spread in transfusions. Using the newly developed test, she said, 4.2 million units of blood have been screened and 900 carriers of the virus identified, preventing the disease being spread.
Gerberding also said she is working with Elias Zerhouni, head of the National Institutes of Health, on integrating some of the research of the two agencies.
The Institute of Medicine, where she spoke, is an arm of the National Academy of Sciences and is chartered by Congress to advise the government on medical matters.