How nurses can help the U.S. prepare for a future epidemic

As the world becomes more and more connected, there is an increased possibility for viruses and bacteria to spread between population centers. As a result, the risks associated with localized epidemics or global health emergencies is more real than ever. As the Zika Virus dominates the headlines, it is all too easy to remember similar scares such as the Ebola crisis or the hysteria associated with the Swine Flu in 2009.

A recent panel of healthcare professionals and industry specialists recently unveiled a lengthy report highlighting the potential for a global pandemic and a framework to combat such a possibility. In such a scenario, nurses would be on the front lines of helping stem any outbreak.

How disease spreads so quickly
The Zika virus is a perfect case study for understanding how viruses can spread in the modern world. The disease has been racing through Latin America in recent weeks such that the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency in early February, according to Vox. However, despite this rapid development, the Zika virus is actually relatively old.

The Zika Virus has been spread with the help of mosquitos.The Zika Virus spread with the help of mosquitos.

The first known cases were actually back in the 1940s, and for decades the disease was concentrated in South East Asia, where Vox reported that just 14 confirmed cases had been diagnosed prior to 2007. Because the virus had not been detected in the Americas until 2014, there has not been an opportunity for people to build up a familiarity with the disease, or even natural antibodies from previous infections. As a result, Latin America was unprepared for the disease.

Some scientists suspect the Zika Virus was spread to South America during the 2014 World Cup, and since then it has exploded in Brazil and throughout the Western Hemisphere. The disease can be transmitted through bodily fluids as well as mosquitos, and already it has spread to over 20 countries in Latin America.

This represents a major concern for health officials worldwide. According to the Washington Post, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa is an unfortunate example of how difficult it can be to contain such a disease. While Ebola didn't spread worldwide as some had feared, there is overwhelming evidence that more could have been done to curb or slow the spread of the disease, which claimed 11,000 lives.

For nurses, there are plenty of online resources for getting involved with potential epidemics and learning more about specific illness and concerns. Unfortunately, however, the nursing shortage here in the U.S. could leave the country vulnerable to a serious outbreak.

Making sense of the nursing shortage
The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that the U.S. spends more money per capita on healthcare than any other country in the world. Despite this, there is still a need for more nurses in this country.

"There could be serious issues when developing rapid-response plans."

The potential for epidemics notwithstanding, there is already a concern that the U.S. does not have enough registered nurses available. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, an aging baby boomer population will put added strain on the healthcare industry, increasing the demand for nurses even further. The AACN stated that by 2020, the U.S. may need to add over one million nursing jobs.

According to the authors of the epidemic preparedness report, "The conditions for infectious disease emergence and contagion are more dangerous than ever…further outbreaks of new, dormant, or even well-known diseases are a certainty."

The Washington Post reported that there could be serious issues when developing rapid-response plans as well as the creation and administration of new vaccines or treatments. Without a stable supply of qualified nurses, these problems only figure to become more difficult. 

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