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Four NIH-Supported Scientists Take Home 2017 Nobel Prizes

What does a fruit fly have to do with you feeling jet lag? Or your mood? Or your metabolism?

What’s the point of immersing a biological molecule like a protein in super-cold ethane?

It turns out answering these questions is not just worthy of grants from the National Institutes of Health — the work has now also been deemed worthy of the world’s most prestigious scientific prize.

Last week, three American scientists funded by NIH received the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling circadian rhythms—the internal biological clock in all living organisms that helps us adapt to the regular rhythm of the day.

A fourth NIH grantee shared the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with two other scientists for the development of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), which improves the imaging of biomolecules. Researchers use cryo-EM to obtain high-resolution images of proteins, lipids and other sensitive biomolecules, allowing them to investigate complex biological questions and even develop new life-saving drugs.

The four 2017 Nobel laureates whose research was supported by NIH are:

  • Jeffrey C. Hall, Ph.D., of the University of Maine;
  • Michael Rosbash, Ph.D., of Brandeis University;
  • Michael W. Young, Ph.D., of Rockefeller University; and
  • Joachim Frank, Ph.D., of Columbia University. Dr. Frank shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Jacques Dubochet, Ph.D., of the University of Geneva and University of Basel, Switzerland, and Richard Henderson, Ph.D., of Cambridge University, England.

Drs. Young and Rosbash have received continuous funding from NIH since 1975, primarily from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke ($17 million and $8 million respectively). Dr. Rosbash’s work has also been supported by the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Dr. Hall has received more than $7 million in funding from NIGMS. Dr. Frank has received continuous funding from NIGMS since 1978, more than $25 million to date.

NIH funding “was essential” to their work, Dr. Rosbash said in an interview with HHS. “This research would have never happened without NIH support.”

Drs. Hall, Young, and Rosbash used fruit flies to isolate the gene that controls circadian rhythms. In an interview with Nobel Media, Dr. Hall quipped that the fruit fly might well be “the key fourth awardee” of their prize.

NIH Director Francis S. Collins said, “The work of these Nobel laureates to help us understand how our biological clocks work has shone a light on the significance of circadian rhythms on our health, and is informing treatments for sleep disorders, obesity, mental health disorders, and other health problems.”

The development by Drs. Frank, Dubochet and Henderson of the cryo-EM technique allows researchers to obtain images of frozen molecules without the use of structure-altering dyes or otherwise changing their form. This “provid[es] a simpler way to generate pictures of the  molecules in their normal states and greater understanding of biological function,” according to an NIH statement.

“The work of these Nobel laureates has been game-changing in our understanding of life’s processes and identifying molecular targets for drug development,” said Dr. Collins, adding that  NIH “is investing heavily in the further development of this technology.”

NIGMS Director Jon R. Lorsch said, “One of the beauties of this prize is that it isn’t just looking backward at what happened in the past, it’s also looking to the future. Recent advances in cryo-EM—made possible by the three winners—are allowing us to make unprecedented advances in areas from our basic understanding of cellular processes to the development of new vaccines.”

According to the NIH Almanac, 153 NIH-supported researchers to date, including some scientists who either did the bulk of their award-winning research at NIH or trained or worked in one of the NIH labs, have been sole or shared recipients of 90 Nobel Prizes for their groundbreaking achievements in physiology or medicine, chemistry, physics, and economic sciences.

These NIH-supported scientists make up about one-sixth of the 892 individuals who have won Nobel Prizes and include now-household names such as DNA researcher James Watson and chemist Linus Pauling.

The 2017 winners will receive their awards on December 10, the anniversary of the death of Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who created the Nobel Prize.

Posted in: Research
Tagged: Nobel, NIH

Service to America Medals Awarded to Three HHS Employees

One is a CDC doctor who has spent his career expanding and improving access to medicine to millions of people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS. Two are FDA employees who helped speed regulatory approval for a break-through medical device that helps people with type 1 diabetes manage their disease.

These three Health and Human Services employees were among 11 federal workers last week who were awarded the Partnership for Public Service’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals. The awards, also known as the SAMMIES, are named for the Partnership for Public Service’s late founder who was inspired by President Kennedy’s call to serve in 1963. The Partnership is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization whose goal is to help make the federal government more effective.

The three HHS honorees are:

  • Dr. Tedd V. Ellerbrock, Chief of the HIV Care and Treatment Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, received the SAMMIES’ Career Achievement award;
  • Courtney Lias, Director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Division of Chemistry and Toxicology Devices, and Stayce Beck, Chief of the Diabetes Diagnostic Devices Branch, and the FDA Artificial Pancreas Team received the Management Excellence award.

Dr. Tedd V. Ellerbrock of CDC
Dr. Tedd V. Ellerbrock of CDC received the SAMMIES’ Career Achievement award

According to the Partnership, Ellerbrock was “one of the key players” behind the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), an initiative launched in 2003 by the administration of President George W. Bush. Ellerbrock was credited with scaling up the system to deliver medicine to developing countries, build international partnerships, and oversee evaluations in more than two dozen countries to identify problems and recommend solutions.

In a video for the Partnership, Ellerbrock spoke of how while he was with the Peace Corps in the Philippines, he had an epiphany about what he wanted for a career—he wanted to provide modern medicine to developing countries.

“You become a doctor to try to make a difference in peoples’ lives, to save lives. This effort, thanks to the generosity of the U.S. government and its people … we are saving millions of lives,” Ellerbrock said.

Dr. Shannon Hader, Director of the CDC’s Division of Global HIV and Tuberculosis, said in a statement for the Partnership, “He did something that had never been done before. He figured out how to roll out safe and effective treatment programs in developing countries.”

The Partnership said the FDA’s Lias and Beck were honored for their work for individuals living with diabetes, by transforming “a slow and cumbersome process to review and approve breakthrough medical devices like the artificial pancreas,” three years earlier than expected.

For the 1.2 million Americans living with type 1 diabetes who must constantly monitor their blood sugar level and determine the correct amount of insulin to take, this device could be life-changing, according to medical experts and patient advocates.

“This is an incredible milestone. To have a system automatically dose insulin is massive. And it opens the door to tons of possibilities,” Aaron Kowalski, chief mission officer for JDRF, an advocacy group for people with type 1 diabetes, said in a statement to the Partnership.

Courtney Lias and Stayce Beck of FDA
Courtney Lias and Stayce Beck of FDA were recognized for improving the regulatory review of a new medical device to help people with type 1 diabetes.

Lias and Beck treated industry, doctors and hospitals and patient advocacy groups as partners, making sure everyone had a voice and that manufacturers had a clear understanding of what documentation would be needed, how the clinical trials should be designed and how patient testing of the device could be made safer.

 “Prior to their intervention,” the Partnership said, “clinical investigators had to go through multiple rounds of reviews before they could start a clinical trial on systems like the one [the artificial pancreas] that Medtronic developed. Lias created a special team and timeline to expedite the clinical trials. The FDA team also worked with Medtronic to speed up the process by reviewing the device component by component, rather than wait until the entire system was complete.”

The Partnership notes that federal employees like Ellerbrock, Lias and Beck are responsible for many special accomplishments that are seldom recognized, let alone celebrated. Deserving of their honors, Ellerbrock, Lias and Beck also represent the excellence of their colleagues at HHS.

Posted in: HHS Administrative
Tagged: research, regulation, AIDS, diabetes

#IAmHHS: Photographing History at HHS

I’ve been the HHS Secretary’s photographer for 27 years. Tom Price is the seventh HHS Secretary whose activities I will have covered for the Department. 

I grew up in the Petworth neighborhood in Northwest D.C. I became interested in photography as a kid, in a D.C. summer youth program. I shot my first photos with a loaner camera. When I saw my images emerge in the darkroom tray, I knew this was for me. Fortunately, my parents knew it, too. Though it was a major purchase, they bought me the camera I wanted – the Nikon F1. I still have it. I went on to graduate from Duke Ellington School of the Arts and from the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, and to make photography my living. 

Photographing inside the government is something special.  I started as a lab photographer, working in the darkroom at the NIH photo lab. After a few years, I moved to the Treasury Department and shooting for Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady.

I moved to HHS in 1990. By 2001, HHS switched to digital photography and my workflow went from taking hours to develop film, make contact sheets, select photos and make 500 prints for the press office to mail out to a matter of minutes now.

One of my most poignant memories was the morning of September 11, 2001. Then-Secretary Tommy Thompson called me to his office, which was used as a command center for the emergency. A month later, the nation faced the Anthrax attacks, and HHS was on the frontlines of the government’s response to the first bioterrorist attack on the U.S. in the 21st century. Shooting in those situations, I could feel history was being made.  

You learn to get the shot and make it count. At this point, I have more of a sense of history. I was there when something important happened and I had to record it properly.

Chris Smith - HHS Secretary photographer

I married my high school sweetheart, and through her, I learned we both had World War II history in common. Both of our fathers were documented, original Tuskegee Airmen, the first black unit of combat aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces. Growing up, I knew only that my father was an aviation cadet, but I didn’t know about his historic role until about eight years ago. I always was proud of my dad, but now I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about the Tuskegee Airmen. On May 8, 2015, the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, it was a thrill to see vintage war-planes flying over Washington, D.C., and to photograph them from the rooftop of the Humphrey Building.

I’m often asked how many images I’ve taken. Well, I have 2.5 terabytes of images stored, representing the last four years. This amounts to about 28,500 images per year and possibly as many as 770,000 images over my 27 years here. 

Grip and grins, sitting in meetings, standing at the podium – there’s a place for them, too, but the in-the-moment, behind the scenes shots – those are the photos that make public service come to life.

I’m Chris Smith, I’m a photographer, and I am HHS. 

Chris is one of more than 79,000 people who make HHS run every day. You can share his story and see others on Twitter and Facebook using #IAmHHS.

Posted in: HHS Administrative
Tagged: #IAmHHS

Faces of Sickle Cell: Include Us in Clinical Trials

They ranged in age from 15 to 61—four African-Americans, all with stories to tell about their struggles with sickle cell disease, all with stories about a common experience that helped them through those struggles: participating in clinical trials.

The panelists, who had joined trials funded by NIH, spoke to a standing-room-only session at the Annual Sickle Cell Disease Clinical Research Meeting, hosted in August by NIH’s National Heart, Lung, Blood Institute, Division of Blood Diseases and Resources.

More than 100,000 people in the United States and millions more worldwide have sickle cell disease, an inherited, often life-threatening blood disorder that mainly affects African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians. Yet fewer than 10 percent of U.S. clinical trial participants come from these populations. Indeed, Hispanics—17 percent of the U.S. population and the second group most affected by sickle cell—make up just 1 percent of trial participants.

Marlene Peters-Lawrence, BSN, RN, RRT, the organizer of the Promoting Diversity in Clinical Trials and Recruitment in Sickle Cell Disease session, said this dearth of participation stymies medical progress more than people realize.

“The studies are delayed and our ability to test hypotheses is severely limited,” she said. But the research community, she added, must play a key role in finding ways to increase participation. 

NIH funds clinical trials in institutions throughout the country, but poverty, geographic proximity, lack of knowledge about and trust in research, as well as  language barriers can all challenge diversity in recruitment for studies.

At the meeting, Ann Farrell, M.D., director of the FDA Division of Hematology Products, discussed the agency’s work with the research community to develop methods to refine its approach to the conduct of trials to provide the best analysis of treatment for diverse populations.

But the trial participants at the session had suggestions of their own.

First, get creative with recruitment, they said. Shirley Miller, 61, the spokesperson for the FDA’s Year of Diversity in Clinical Trials Campaign, called for using current study participants to recruit others. “They are going to believe them better than someone who doesn’t experience the pain,” she said.

Second, build trust by talking about the research in detail. “When I consider participating in a trial, I want you [the researchers] to be transparent about successes and failures, so the patient knows what to expect,” said Jennifer Nsenkyire, 44, who in 2009 received an experimental bone marrow transplant that transformed her life.

“Explain how I can stop my participation in the middle of the study, and what happens if I have a bad reaction to the treatment tested,” she said at the conference. “Can I receive lifetime care for that or would I be on my own? I want to understand the benefits to me and to future generations, and the risks involved.”

It is common to hear that minorities mistrust researchers. According to Sherrie Flynt Wallington, Ph.D., assistant professor of oncology at Georgetown University Medical Center, the mistrust is not about past abuses – such as the infamous Tuskegee study in which black men were not given effective treatment against syphilis in order to study the progression of the disease – but about how patients and their communities are treated by researchers today.

The answer, Wallington said, is engaging the community in the research. She encouraged researchers to report back to the communities with study results and to develop lay audience materials.

“At the core of all community-engaged research is the understanding that the community will be involved in a meaningful way,” Wallington said.

Explaining with candor the multi-layered benefits of the research—that it is for the greater good, not just for the individual patient—is part of building that trust, one patient said.

Francine Baker, who joined her daughter Jasmin, a15-year-old living with sickle cell disease and an advocate, put it best: “Giving back is rewarding. Having my children participate in clinical trials has been rewarding for them as well, and they have learned so much about their disease.”  

And with that, Jasmin offered a rousing sendoff message for researchers. “Thank you!” she said. “Even if you don’t see change, there is change. Don’t give up!”

September is Sickle Cell Awareness Month. Learn more about sickle cell disease and clinical trials at:

Posted in: Prevention and Wellness, Holidays and Observances
Tagged: Sickle Cell Disease Awareness Month

Keeping Americans Safe Through Hurricane Irma

Evacuees from St. Maartin. Photo Credit: Department of Defense: New York National Guard photo by Army Col. Richard Goldenberg
Evacuees from St. Maartin. Photo Credit: Department of Defense: New York National Guard photo by Army Col. Richard Goldenberg

Before Hurricane Irma struck the islands east of Florida, the Office of Refugee Resettlement at HHS’ Administration for Children and Families started repatriation efforts to ensure Americans were safely transported back to American soil and out of harm’s way. From Saturday evening September 9 through September 15, over 2,600 evacuees were moved from St. Maarten to Puerto Rico. A substantial portion of these individuals will eventually return back to the continental U.S.

This was done in collaboration with the Department of State and Department of Defense, and through the U.S. Repatriation Program. The program was established in 1935 to provide temporary assistance to U.S. citizens who are returning to the US because of a crisis. Once they arrive, the Office of Refugee Resettlement steps in to provide medical care, shelter, food and other necessary services.

This help is in the form of service loans from both the Department of State and Department of Health and Human Services – once the citizens are back on American soil they are expected to repay the government for the help.

The program can be initiated for small or large groups of people. On 9/11, an American citizen on dialysis was helped by HHS and the government of Puerto Rico with urgent travel to return to North Carolina in time for a scheduled kidney transplant procedure.

ACF employees, in conjunction with the Department of State and Department of Defense, will continue to work tirelessly to safeguard the lives of those American citizens in need of assistance.

Posted in: Emergency Preparedness and Response
Tagged: Hurricane Irma

Bringing Critical Health Services Closer to Home

Christin Green is a family medicine doctor at a health center in Maryland. She recalls the difficult and emotional journey of a patient who fought to reach a full week of sobriety after decades of opioid addiction: “His eyes were watering as he was explaining how meaningful it was to him.”  Health centers have and will continue to be on the frontlines of this crisis, serving patients like Dr. Green’s every day.

Primary care providers play a critical role in connecting patients to mental health and substance abuse services. Health centers provided these services to almost 2 million patients last year. And, to continue these services, today, HRSA announced the award of more than $200 million to 1,178 health centers to expand access to mental health services and substance abuse services. These resources will focus on the treatment, prevention, and awareness of opioid abuse. Health centers will use funds to increase personnel, leverage health information technology, and provide training.

We also announced the award recipients for two grants administered by our Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP):

  • The Substance Abuse Treatment Telehealth Network Grant Program will provide $670,000 across three recipients to improve access to health care services, particularly substance abuse treatment, in rural communities using telehealth networks.
  • The Rural Health Opioid Program will provide up to $2,500,000 across 10 recipients to increase access to treatment and recovery services within rural communities.

Research shows that drug overdose deaths are 45% higher in rural areas compared to urban communities.  Rural residents struggling with substance abuse issues, particularly opioid use disorder, often face unique challenges such as isolation and stigma. Both FORHP programs aim to strengthen interventions to overcome these challenges.

Millions of Americans struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues. HRSA’s programs aim to ensure that they can get quality and timely care closer to home. 

To learn more about today’s $200 million funding announcement, visit: https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2017/09/14/hrsa-awards-200-million-to-health-centers-nationwide.html

To learn more about the Health Center Program, visit: http://bphc.hrsa.gov/about

To find a health center in your area, visit: http://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov

To learn more about the FORHP, visit: https://www.hrsa.gov/ruralhealth/

Posted in: Grants and Contracts
Tagged: opioids, grants, health centers

Every American Has a Part to Play in Suicide Prevention

It is one thing to hear in the abstract that America suffers from a stubbornly high rate of suicide and suicide attempts. But when it hits home—as it did for me years ago when a young neighbor, struggling with serious mental illness, died from suicide—we realize we have to ask some tough questions.

What could we possibly do to stop someone from taking his or her life? What are we failing to do for our neighbors and family members struggling with substance abuse or serious mental illness? What can we do to address the fact that this problem is especially acute among those whom we owe the most, our veterans? How can we fail to see when a loved one or neighbor is struggling?

The tragedy of suicide demands a proactive and coordinated response, from both the public sector and local communities and civil society. Particularly during National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in September and National Suicide Prevention Awareness Week (September 11 through 17), we need to remind ourselves that working together with compassion and commitment, we can make a difference and reduce the numbers of our veterans, youth, older adults, and others dying by suicide.

The statistics on this problem are disturbing:

  • Overall, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans.
  • In 2015, nearly 44,200 deaths were due to suicide, meaning our country suffers about one suicide every 12 minutes.
  • One in 20 Americans with schizophrenia—one of the serious mental illnesses we have made a priority at HHS—die by suicide.
  • Americans with mood disorders like depression or bipolar disorder die by suicide at a rate 25 times the general population.
  • Each day, according to the VA, 20 veterans die of suicide.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 605,000 U.S. residents died by suicide from 1999 to 2015.

This week, HHS is distributing $14.5 million in new grants for suicide prevention, under the Zero Suicide program and Cooperative Agreements to Implement the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention. These grants will help states, tribes, and health systems run suicide prevention programs for Americans 25 years of age and older.

Each of us has an individual role to play in this fight. There is evidence that bolstering our personal and community interconnectedness can make a significant difference. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center exit disclaimer icon, increasing the connections among individuals, family, community and social institutions can be a major protective factor for preventing suicide.

Research exit disclaimer icon shows that people who are having thoughts of suicide feel relief when someone asks about them in a caring way. Studies also indicate that helping a person at risk connect to a support system can reduce feelings of hopelessness and give them the people and resources to reach out to for help, whether it’s a hotline, family, friends, clergy, therapists, or others.

With our public and private partners in the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention exit disclaimer icon, known as the Action Alliance, we are pursuing a public health approach that considers long-term prevention strategies, as well as crisis responses, while targeting specific vulnerable populations that are at higher risk. HHS’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) funds the Suicide Prevention Resource Center exit disclaimer icon and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

Here are some of the available resources for suicide prevention produced through those partnerships and others:

  • The Suicide Prevention Resource Center exit disclaimer icon provides staffing and other support to the Action Alliance and for Zero Suicide exit disclaimer icon, an initiative based on the belief that suicide deaths for individuals receiving the right care are preventable.
  • If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or you think is at risk of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), a 24-hour toll-free confidential hotline. This hotline has helped more than 6 million since its inception in 2005, routing calls within its network of more than 160 crisis centers. The Lifeline’s website exit disclaimer icon has important information about how to help people in crisis.
  • Thanks to collaboration between SAMHSA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, military service members, veterans, and their families can call the Lifeline number, press “1” at the prompt and be connected to VA counselors.
  • If you’re involved in suicide prevention programming in your community, check out CDC’s Preventing Suicide: a Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practices - PDF.

Being a caring friend, family member, and neighbor can go a long way in preventing our fellow Americans from getting to the point of suicidal thoughts.

Back in May when we honored a couple prominent Olympic athletes for their work in raising awareness about mental health issues, I said: Never be afraid to ask, “Are you alright?  Is everything OK?  How are you doing?”

Sometimes, that’s all it takes to save a life.

Posted in: Mental Health and Substance Abuse
Tagged: national suicide prevention awareness month

No Time to Rest from One Hurricane, HHS Helps Prepare for Another

Anticipating significant destruction, pounding winds and flooding from Hurricane Irma as the category 5 hurricane approaches U.S. territories and states, the Department of Health and Human Services has declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and pre-positioned medical support personnel near potentially impacted areas. HHS has also alerted additional medical and public health teams to be ready to deploy where needed.

Irma’s impact is expected to be devastating, likely knocking out electricity, destroying homes and other buildings and making emergency travel and rescues difficult.

Two HHS regional emergency coordinators are stationed in Puerto Rico with about 75 other federal responders at the FEMA Distribution Center, a windowless bunker-like facility, hunkering down at the center for the night as the winds increase and roadways are blocked by fallen trees. The HHS coordinators are there to facilitate the federal public health and medical response for Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands.

HHS Secretary Tom Price, M.D. spoke with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Roselló, U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp and Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday to inform them of HHS efforts to prepare for the storm and assist their local responses if needed.

Federal personnel and equipment are provided at the request of state or territory officials. To ensure that HHS is positioned to fill requests immediately from the affected areas, the department has pre-positioned incident coordination staff and equipment in Puerto Rico and Georgia. These teams will oversee response activities in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Florida. 

HHS Secretary Price declares public health emergency in Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands due to Hurricane Irma
Secretary Price signs Public Health Emergency declaration for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands

HHS also dispatched a Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) from the National Disaster Medical System to Puerto Rico, and pre-positioned two DMATs in Georgia to be prepared to dispatch quickly into areas affected by Irma.

DMATs consist of medical professionals and support personnel from the private sector who are called into federal service during disasters to help local officials meet the overwhelming need for medical care after storms.

The department alerted four additional DMATs to be ready to deploy if needed. Three teams of U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps personnel also stand ready to assist.

To aid state and territory officials in preparing for potential health impacts, HHS makes emPOWER data available to public health officials in Puerto Rico and Florida. This data shows the number of Medicare beneficiaries in each potentially impacted area who rely on any of 14 types of life-maintaining and assistive equipment, ranging from oxygen concentrators to electric wheelchairs, as well as data on the number of people who rely on dialysis, oxygen and home health services. These people are among the most vulnerable in their communities and are most likely to need life-saving assistance in prolonged power outages.

If needed, HHS can establish Federal Medical Stations capable of providing care for to up to 250 patients at a time. HHS set up and staffed a Federal Medical Station at a convention center in Houston after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas. The department also can mobilize additional medical supplies and equipment, including pharmaceuticals, as needed to aid the local medical response.

A Disaster Medical Assistant Team sets up a Federal Medical Station in Houston for Hurricane Harvey victims
A Disaster Medical Assistant Team sets up a Federal Medical Station in Houston for Hurricane Harvey victims

HHS encourages people in the hurricane zone to take actions to protect their health during and after the storm, including how to maintain safe foods, to avoid the dangers of flood waters, and to recognize and cope with traumatic stress.

Information on health safety tips before and after the hurricane will be provided by HHS’ Office of the Assistance Secretary for Preparedness and Response and will be available at www.phe.gov/irma.

Critical updates will also be available at:

Posted in: Emergency Preparedness and Response
Tagged: Harvey, Irma, Hurricanes

Standing by Texas and Louisiana in the Face of Hurricane Harvey

Geocolor image of Tropical Storm Harvey
Geocolor image of Tropical Storm Harvey in the Gulf of Mexico captured on Aug. 24, 2017.

With Hurricane Harvey continuing to intensify today and expected to make landfall late tonight near Corpus Christi, Texas, Department of Health and Human Services personnel and resources have already deployed.  HHS is aggressively preparing to help all Americans in the path of what might be the strongest hurricane to strike the United States in more than a decade.

Experienced HHS emergency personnel mobilized earlier this week and are committed to taking every action possible to protect and aid the Texans and Louisianans in harm’s way. HHS Secretary, Tom Price, M.D., has also already spoken with the governors of Texas and Louisiana to assure them of our assistance.

Here’s some of what HHS is doing (the Department will update this list throughout the weekend as the situation develops):

  • HHS has called in 460 National Disaster Medical System personnel, including community doctors, nurses and other medical personnel from around the country, to deploy to potentially impacted areas and be in place ahead of the storm. These people will be in position on Friday.
  • The HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) moved six Disaster Medical Assistance Teams into the Dallas area along with Incident Response Coordination Teams to support the medical teams in Texas and Louisiana. Additional teams are on alert to provide medical care as needed.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moved two 250-bed Federal Medical Stations to Baton Rouge, ready to be deployed anywhere in the state, and additional Federal Medical Stations are available in Dallas for patient care in Texas.
  • The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health also organized the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps for rapid deployment. Those officers stand ready to staff the Federal Medical Stations and meet other public health or medical needs in impacted communities.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration activated the Disaster Distress Helpline, a toll-free call center, to aid people in coping with the behavioral health effects of the storm and help people in impacted areas connect with local behavioral health professionals. Trained crisis counselors can be reached by calling 1-800-985-5990 or by texting TalkWithUs to 66746.

HHS has also provided data to public health authorities in Texas and Louisiana to assist them in reaching citizens who rely on electrically powered medical equipment at home, like supplemental oxygen supplies. Power outages can become life-or-death situations for people with these medical conditions.

The Department remains in regular contact with Texas and Louisiana health officials to maintain awareness of the local situation and stands ready to augment its support to the states as the situation unfolds.

HHS encourages people in the hurricane zone to take actions to protect their health during and after the storm, including how to maintain safe foods, to safely clean up homes, to avoid the dangers of flood waters, and to recognize and cope with traumatic stress.

Learn more at www.phe.gov/harvey  and follow these HHS Twitter accounts to receive critical updates related to the Hurricane Harvey:

ASPR - @PHEgov


CDC  - @CDCgov

Secretary Tom Price, M.D. - @SecPriceMD

Posted in: Emergency Preparedness and Response
Tagged: hurricane preparedness

#IAmHHS: Seeing People for Their Strengths, Not Their Weaknesses

For nearly 40 years, my career has revolved around ensuring the humane care and management of laboratory animals used in biomedical research.  I am really not a person who likes to sing my own praises, but for background, I am the chief of Animal Program Administration at the National Eye Institute (NEI), which is part of the National Institutes of Health. I have been president of professional societies and served on boards. And I have co-edited a leading text book on the management of laboratory animal care and use programs.

But even with all this, I consider one of my most important career accomplishments to be motivated by a simple question that was posed to me at a Special Olympics holiday party back in 2005: “Hey Doc, how about getting me a job?”

Joe Wu, a person with intellectual developmental disabilities, asked me that question over a decade ago. He eventually became my colleague at NEI.

I had gotten to know Joe because like my daughter, Gretchen, who had special needs, he is involved with the Special Olympics. He started working with us at NEI as a volunteer and through hard work in our program, he earned a full time job.

Over time, we have expanded the program to hire additional people with intellectual and development disabilities, and today, we have five people working with us.

Robert and his co-workers.

Let there be no doubt: The program is a win-win, and not charity of any kind. It takes a team effort, and the work can be strenuous at times. Providing husbandry and caring for lab animals is not a glamorous or high-paying job, and there has been a fairly high turnover in some of the entry and mid-level positions. But our staff with intellectual and developmental disabilities are some of the most dedicated, proudest, hardest workers we have, and they are happy in their positions. During snowstorms, some have slept on cots in the facility to make sure they don’t miss work.

One of the most satisfying things for me is having families tell me how overjoyed they are because their adult children have finally found a workplace where their contributions are deeply appreciated, where they have purpose and where they have the opportunity to achieve greater levels of responsibility. The result has been very positive and even inspiring for our entire work group.

The one big “take away” here is to see people for their strengths, not just their weaknesses. Everybody’s contribution to the team is valued and important.

It’s really gratifying to me to be in a federal agency that allows this kind of program to happen, to take root and flourish. Yes, there were logistical processes to work through, and special training required for both the individuals with special needs and the other people who work with them. But in the end, it goes back to what a career in government means: service to the community.

I’m Dr. Robert Weichbrod. I work for the National Eye Institute. And I Am HHS.

Rob is one of more than 79,000 people who make HHS run every day. You can share his story and see others on Twitter and Facebook using #IAmHHS.

Find out how Rob Weichbrod has made a difference in the lives of many people & families with disabilities. #IAmHHS https://go.usa.gov/xRwbd

Posted in: Animal Health, HHS Administrative, Public Health and Safety
Tagged: disabilities, #IAmHHS

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