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Public health concepts for biosafety and biosecurity

Public health is the science of improving and protecting health through the promotion of healthy lifestyles, researching disease and injury prevention, and the detection and control of infectious diseases. Public health is primarily concerned with protecting the health of entire populations, from a global level through to regions, nations, communities, families and finally impacting on individuals. Public Health measures are primarily geared towards the prevention of illness and injury, rather than solely on the recognition, diagnosis and treatment of disease. A significant portion of public health work is aligned with health protection, particularly health measures that decrease impact and increase resilience to important threats such as emerging infectious diseases and other health risks.

Biosafety is a term that encompasses the actions, systems and policies that protect humans from exposure to harmful biological agents. Biosafety is an important consideration when individuals may or will handle high risk – that is, highly transmissible and highly lethal – biological agents. There are various components that together contribute to biosafety, however broadly speaking they can all be considered to be a form of risk reduction and control. A risk control is anything that reduces the ability of a hazard to cause injury to a person, and can take many forms. Personal protective equipment, laboratory physical containment systems and decontamination techniques are well known components of some Biosafety systems.

Biosecurity considerations have recently received much attention and have become increasingly important with technological change. Systems for determining suitability of individuals to work with high risk agents, cybersecurity and scientific information security are all examples of biosecurity risks that have required better management after significant events. Unlike biosafety, effective biosecurity measures require the cooperation of a wide range of experts such as scientists, policy makers, security engineers and law enforcement.

Public health practitioners contribute to biosafety and biosecurity through:

  • Risk management – the deliberate process of recognising biological agent hazards, and devising strategies to reduce the risk posed to humans.
  • Clinical processes – by providing expert advice to develop appropriate protocols, techniques and procedures for conducting appropriate and safe research with high risk biological agents.
  • Medical preparedness – by assisting decision makers and policy makers to expend scarce resources in protecting populations against biological threats most effectively, and so that response to a biological event is efficient.
  • Logistics – by devising strategies to best utilise health care system resources to achieve the highest levels of biosafety and biosecurity.
  • Outbreak response – by leading health teams in responding to epidemic events, and providing advice and support to decision makers during outbreaks.
  • Decision support – by assisting policy makers and decision makers in making decisions surrounding biosafety and biosecurity that are ethical, effective and efficient.

However, other agencies outside of health, such as defence, emergency services and law enforcement, are also responsible for biosecurity.  One of the key locations where biosecurity is important is in laboratories where high risk biological agents are handled, researched, or stored.

After reading this article, discuss the answer to these questions in the comments section below:

  • What is the role of public health practitioners in promoting biosecurity and biosafety?
  • What is the role of other agencies?
  • Why are laboratory locations of significant biosecurity and biosafety risk?

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This article is from the free online course:

Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Public Health Dimensions

UNSW Sydney

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