Stockpile Expert Helps Responders Prepare for Emergencies

Tom Jackson touring proposed medical materiel storage site in Yaounde, Cameroon in March 2015.
Tom Jackson touring proposed medical material storage site in Yaounde, Cameroon in March 2015.

In the United States, most of us take it for granted that if we need medicine – cough syrup, aspirin, or even most antibiotics – we can just run down to the pharmacy and get it. That’s because our medical supply chain – the series of organizations, companies, and systems that make sure those shelves are stocked – works well. In an emergency, we even have a stockpile of medicines on hand and people with the skills and resources to deliver it anywhere in the United States within 12 hours.

In many parts of the world, it can be hard to even get the basics.

One of the essential goals of the Global Health Security Agenda is to create a structure for sending and receiving medicines and materials (medical countermeasures) and staff between international partners during public health emergencies. As a senior training advisor for the Strategic National Stockpile, my job is to help responders in other countries figure out how to make their supply chains work in any type of public health crisis. The stockpile has hosted medical supply chain workshops in developing countries, including Ethiopia, Uganda and Cameroon.

Every link in the chain is critical

From L to R – Tom Jackson, Joe Vital, and Michael Ayres: DSNS facilitators for medical countermeasures workshop at Ethiopia Public Health Institute in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 2016.
From left to right – Tom Jackson, Joe Vitale, and Michael Ayres: DSNS facilitators for medical countermeasures workshop at Ethiopia Public Health Institute in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 2016.

In a crisis, every link in the chain has to be working properly.

For example, if there’s a disease outbreak, what good is it to send a team to take a sample if you can’t ship that sample to a lab?

Or maybe there’s a nearby lab, but the lab workers don’t have the equipment or training to process the sample. How do you figure out what you’re up against and what supplies to order?

And, finally, if the supply chain can’t get the necessary medicines and supplies to the people who need them, all the other response achievements don’t matter. It all has to be in place, and it all has to work together.

Every emergency – and every place – is different

If every emergency were the same and required the same resources, figuring out how to help people would be easy and no one would ever have to suffer due to a lack of medicine or supplies.

But every place in the world is different, both in the risks people face and the resources they have available. I always tell responders to ask the right questions: What emergencies are most likely to happen? And what can we do to make the supply chain work better?

Let’s say there’s a large-scale public health crisis, and a ship full of medical supplies comes into the harbor. But, there’s not a single dock to unload it. What good are those supplies? However, if there’s even one dock – even if it’s not the best dock – people can unload the ship and deliver help. Improving any part of the supply chain helps.

Any plan is better than none

When I travel to other countries, I tell responders that any plan, even an imperfect plan, is better than no plan at all. In a crisis, we don’t want to be starting from scratch.

What will you do when you’re used to receiving and distributing 20 pallets of medicines and materials and all of a sudden you receive 200…or 2,000? These are the kinds of questions countries should be able to answer before disaster strikes.

Also important is to practice and exercise response plans ahead of time so everyone knows what to do. In the United States, the stockpile partners with state, territorial and local public health to conduct large-scale exercises that simulate a real emergency. This kind of practice is critical to identifying gaps in the plan.

So, in a nutshell, what is it I do? I help countries ask the right questions, plan, and find the resources they need to respond quickly and efficiently. And why do I do what I do? Because I believe this is how we stop outbreaks close to the source and keep epidemics from spreading around the world.

This story illustrates our commitment to implementing the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), which aims to improve the world’s ability to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats. CDC is partnering with 31 countries around the world to reach the goals of the GHSA, including having a national framework for transferring (sending and receiving) medical countermeasures and public health and medical personnel among international partners during public health emergencies.