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Public Health and Disaster Response

CDC and ATSDR are part of a wide network of public health agencies that include federal, state, and local health departments and health professionals. These agencies conduct vital work in the hours, days, and months following a hazardous event. They also work very closely with other emergency responders at all levels of government and with nongovernmental organizations. During an oil spill, CDC and ATSDR participate as part of the National Response Team. Some of the major roles of public health in a disaster situation include the following:


Public health preparedness is the ability of the public health system, community, and individuals to prevent, protect against, quickly respond to, and recover from health emergencies, particularly those in which scale, timing, or unpredictability threatens to overwhelm routine capabilities.


During an emergency response, CDC’s emergency operations center brings together scientists from across CDC to efficiently exchange information and connect with public health emergency response partners.  For multi-state or severe emergencies, CDC provides additional public health resources and coordinates response efforts across multiple jurisdictions, both domestically and abroad.  This helps ensure that health needs in the immediate aftermath of an event are addressed with highest priority.

Health Surveillance

Public health agencies systematically track health issues or illnesses that may be related to the event. This data gathering helps scientists and public health responders focus on quickly identifying and addressing the causes of the problem.

Looking out for vulnerable people

The elderly, pregnant women, children, people with disabilities or immune disorders, and people with few resources are often disproportionately affected by disasters. Some people, if exposed at sufficient levels, could possibly experience health effects from exposure to chemicals in oil and chemicals that occur when oil is burned. Public health professionals make sure that responders are aware of and prepared for special needs.

Protecting response workers

Workers are a common denominator at any disaster or novel emergency event. Protecting the health and safety of these workers by preventing diseases, injuries, and fatalities is a public health priority. This can be accomplished by ensuring that responder safety and health is addressed systemically during all phases of responses.

Exposure Assessment

Public health professionals look to see if, and how much, people are being exposed to contaminants that may affect their health. Just because a chemical was released does not mean it is reaching people or affecting people’s health.

Sharing health information

Public health responders make sure that people have the information they need to protect themselves and their families. This information is shared through media, through the web, through partners, and directly with the public. Information that is shared gives people the tools to make important decisions for themselves during stressful situations.