The Texas A&M Health Science Center (HSC) on Sept. 23 launched the Biosecurity and Import Safety Initiative — a collection of service, research and educational activities designed to ensure the health of the Rio Grande Valley, a region at risk of infectious disease, environmental threats and natural disasters.

“The Rio Grande Valley faces some very unique challenges due in part to the high number of visitors traveling in and out of this area annually, the presence of particularly vulnerable populations, and a rapidly developing infrastructure,” said Scott Lillibridge, M.D., assistant dean and professor in the HSC-School of Rural Public Health and director of the National Center for Emergency Medical Preparedness and Response (NCEMPR). “When combined, these factors make the region a biosecurity hot spot where medical and public health preparedness are critically important to Texas.”

“One of the Health Science Center’s main objectives with the Biosecurity and Import Safety Initiative will be to increase the likelihood that local public health personnel, health providers and health-related organizations have the tools necessary to immediately recognize emergency situations and, in turn, report potential situations to local and regional public health authorities,” Dr. Lillibridge continued.

Joining Dr. Lillibridge and his HSC colleagues at the unveiling ceremony at the HSC-South Texas Center were State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-District 20; State Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-District 41; State Rep. Tara Rios Ybarra, D-District 43; and area public health authorities, hospital administrators, health providers, emergency medicine system personnel and invited guests.

“With the Rio Grande Valley and the Coastal Bend serving as two of the largest ports of entry for people and commerce, we have direct access to the people and data relevant to detecting threats to public health,” Sen. Hinojosa said. “The border is the frontline for expanding our knowledge base as to specific risks and solutions for identifying, containing and treating the spread of communicable infections and viruses.”

To help address complex biosecurity issues along the Texas-Mexico border, the Texas A&M Health Science Center was tasked by the 81st Texas Legislature with developing a Biosecurity and Import Safety Initiative headquartered in McAllen. The initiative is an integrated program that fosters training, education and enhanced environmental laboratory capacities in support of preparedness and increased local public health infrastructure.

“The work to be conducted by the Biosecurity and Import Safety Initiative in McAllen will benefit not only our community along the international border but the entire state,” Rep. Gonzales said. “Appropriating these funds is a proactive approach to saving money and lives of countless Texans in the event of a threat to our security and health.”

Through initial state appropriations of $1 million over the next two years, the HSC is establishing groundwork in three critical areas: support of public health preparedness for urgent threats; provision of environmental health laboratory services to guard against toxic threats to water and food; and provision of additional public health practice and training opportunities for health professionals in McAllen and throughout the region.

“We worked as an entire legislative delegation to make sure South Texas is at the forefront of biosecurity initiatives with the state,” Rep. Ybarra said. “This initiative will work with legislation we passed to create a pilot public health extension service that will be the first of its kind.”

Wednesday’s launch of the program included a medical field demonstration consisting of a high-technology storage and transport trailer, treatment tents and a mobile Emergency Operations Center, along with a display of new methods for patient simulation training and techniques for decontamination. The equipment was gathered from throughout the United States, along with the accompanying training partners.