WASHINGTON, Aug. 13, 2014 - The Military Health System is under-recognized as a strategic asset to the United States, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs said yesterday.
Through immunization programs, collaborative research efforts and the promotion of global health and goodwill, the Military Health System contributes to the security of the nation and the world, Dr. Jonathan Woodson said.
"We have always been about prevention of disease, and so we've been involved with campaigns and research to identify and prevent emerging infectious disease, really from our beginning," he said.
From its outset, the system has been focused on promoting public health, Woodson said. Dating back to the late 19th century, researchers such as Walter Reed -- who discovered the means by which typhoid and yellow fevers were spread, saving countless lives as a result -- have worked to prevent the development and spread of disease both in the United States and abroad.
As a consequence, he said, the Military Health System has labs positioned around the world, allowing U.S. personnel to partner with host-nation doctors and scientists to build public health capacity and to identify emerging infectious diseases.
"That results in what we call bio-security for not only those host nations, but for the world," Woodson said.
One way of ensuring bio-security is through immunization programs, he said, adding that because August is National Immunization Awareness Month, it's a good time to recognize the positive effects those programs have had on security and quality of life around the world.
"We're two centuries since the first development of the effective smallpox vaccine," Woodson noted. "That's just an amazing statement in and of itself. And in that time, vaccines and immunizations have saved countless lives -- millions of lives."
And just as importantly, he said, vaccines and immunizations have reduced the illness caused by disease. Even now, despite two centuries of advances in health care and medical science, vaccines and immunizations remain one of the most effective public health tools in reducing disease and death, Woodson said.
"Americans today can celebrate the fact that diseases that caused death a century ago, that caused a great deal of illness a century ago, [are] a distant memory," he said.
As deadly diseases become less common in the United States, Woodson said, it becomes even more important that people are educated about the importance of vaccinations and immunizations, and about how they work.
In a time when someone infected with a disease picked up anywhere in the world could arrive in the United States just a few hours later, international outreach efforts are critical to protecting public health, he said.
When large populations are vaccinated against disease, they develop community, or "herd" immunity. This protects more vulnerable members of the community -- such as infants, pregnant women or immunocompromised individuals -- by containing the spread of contagious disease.
"Be it certain types of influenza, or even the current focus of activity, Ebola, the ... U.S. military has a repository of experts, a history of public health [and] a research apparatus that contributes very significantly to public health, both in this nation and around the world," Woodson noted. And it's done in partnership with host nations, he added.
One goal of this work is to build public health capacity to prevent and identify emerging infectious diseases, he said. This allows host nations not only to protect their own populations, but also to prevent diseases from becoming international or global health crises. "It's good for the host nation, it's good for the world, it's good for us," Woodson said.
The Military Health System is just one part of the nation's collaborative approach to disease prevention, he said. "Institutions like the Centers for Disease Control have point for many of the policies that are developed as part of that whole of U.S. government action, but the Department of Defense, the Military Health System, is an important contributor to this effort," Woodson said.
Woodson acknowledged that some people are concerned about vaccines and their association with certain other health-related problems. But, he said, "what one cannot deny is that the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing death and disease is far greater than any possibility of side effects."
It's easy to become complacent in the 21st century, when many diseases have virtually disappeared in the United States, Woodson said. But as recently noted with the uptick in polio -- mainly because some parents have decided not to have their children vaccinated -- there can be a resurgence of these diseases," he added.
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