Pandemic shows need to invest in public health protections

Capitol Weekly, Bill Quirk (special commentary)

One thing we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that there is an immense need to invest in public health and disease prevention tools before there is another widespread outbreak. While we cannot fix the past, we do have an opportunity to ensure California residents are protected from debilitating and deadly diseases in the future.

Our changing climate has enabled the spread of invasive mosquitoes capable of transmitting exotic viruses such as Zika, dengue, and yellow fever. According to the California Department of Public Health, over the last ten years, invasive Aedes mosquitoes have spread to more than 300 cities and towns in 22 California counties. They are different from those that are found naturally in California in that they exploit small, often unnoticed water sources and thrive in people’s backyards and patios—areas where intervention by mosquito and vector control districts is costly and time-consuming.

Fortunately, the state, in partnership with the University of California, Davis and mosquito control and public health experts, developed the CalSurv Gateway.

Travel-associated cases of dengue, Zika, and chikungunya are detected regularly in California, which leads to risk for local outbreaks. As travel continues to open up, there is a potential for a surge in cases. There are no human vaccines for chikungunya and Zika viruses, both of which are costly to treat and can have long-term health and financial consequences. 

In addition, mosquito experts continue to combat West Nile virus, the most prevalent and serious mosquito-borne disease in California. Since the virus was detected in our state in 2003, more than 7,000 human disease cases have been reported including more than 300 deaths. 

Fortunately, the state, in partnership with the University of California, Davis and mosquito control and public health experts, developed the CalSurv Gateway. This is an online interactive platform that provides tools for real-time data collection, visualization, and analysis of data of vector-borne diseases. The system curates local and statewide data that enables 81 mosquito and vector control and public health agencies in California to make timely and informed decisions on if and when to employ public health interventions to prevent the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. 

The problem is that CalSurv has run out of funding and without state support for these surveillance and disease response activities, public health will be at risk. It is critical that we have an adequate public health database to safeguard residents against vector-borne threats. 

One benefit of CalSurv is that it enhances health equity in vulnerable communities. California has a wide range of vector control programs that serve our state’s diverse constituency, and these local programs vary greatly in funding and operational capacity. CalSurv is especially effective because it provides software for evidence-based public-health decisions in small rural communities that have a proportionally higher risk of vector-borne disease transmission but limited resources. Mosquito control agencies report that CalSurv allows them to target their operations where they are most effective by facilitating rapid collection and visualization of mosquito surveillance data, providing highlighting areas of heightened risk and timely test results.

California’s data on vector-borne diseases is among the most comprehensive and robust in the nation, and CalSurv’s many tools for mapping and analyzing data make our state more prepared for the growing effects of climate change and the diseases that invasive species can spread.  The rich data sets provide a wealth of information that can be harnessed for research to improve surveillance and control strategies and predict new disease outbreaks. Many data requests from researchers have been served already, and additional state funding would allow for completion of an open-data portal to further accelerate research.

The current pandemic underscores the need for the state to invest in preventative approaches to protect public health and facilitate early interventions. Unfortunately, we have seen the dire consequences when a large disease outbreak occurs. Funding CalSurv is a cost-effective and smart investment in public health.

Editor’s Note:  Assemblymember Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), who represents the 20th District, was a climate change scientist at NASA and the country’s expert on foreign nuclear weapons at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.