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Remarks to Medical Students at Fukushima Medical University

Eric D. Hargan
Fukushima Medical University students and staff
October 25, 2019
Fukushima, Japan

I am pleased to be here to honor and strengthen the longstanding partnership between the United States and Japan to improve the health of both of our nations

Dear students and faculty of Fukushima Medical University, thank you very much for hosting me today and for a tour of your facilities. I have had the honor to meet some of your peers in their classrooms today and learn a little about Japanese medical school.

As the Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but a lawyer not a doctor, it is always helpful to spend a little extra time at a medical school!

I am pleased to be here to honor and strengthen the longstanding partnership between the United States and Japan to improve the health of both of our nations. That cooperation covers many areas and many different types of health work. For example, the U.S.–Japan Cooperative Medical Science Program is the one of the oldest bilateral programs run by our national biomedical research institution, the National Institutes of Health.

Now 54 years old, this program continues to bring top researchers together to address the public health issues of importance in the Asia-Pacific region. Our two countries have many shared priorities and mutual health interests including emergency preparedness, antimicrobial resistance, and pandemic influenza.

In my previous tenure at the U.S. health department, from 2003 to 2007, I was part of the federal response to August 2005's Hurricane Katrina.

In 2005, after the hurricane hit the southeast United States, we experienced tremendous flooding and subsequent loss of life. When that disaster hit, our friends responded—and that included Japan. Both the Japanese government and Japanese private citizens offered emergency aid, emergency supplies, and advice on how to plan our response.

Despite heroic efforts of our first responders and countless instances of kindness and solidarity of everyday Americans helping their neighbors, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that we needed substantial updates and improvements to how we prepare and plan to respond to disasters. While, in many ways, the healthcare and public health response to the hurricane was a bright spot, we also saw, within the health department, that there needed to be improvements.

Less than a year and a half after the hurricane, the U.S. Congress passed the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, revamping HHS's role in disaster response and centralizing those functions within a new Office for the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

As a whole, the U.S. government updated our federal response plan into a national response framework, which incorporated the lessons learned from hurricane Katrina. As we face new disasters today, we continue to refine and update our planning and response efforts to improve the health and safety of our citizens.

Japan's geographic location, right in the Ring of Fire, makes this nation no stranger to the need for emergency preparedness and response. Japan has shown, throughout its history, that resilience is central to your national character. That is true as a cultural matter, but it also means something quite specific.

The U.S. government has a specific operational definition of "resilience": "the ability to adapt to changing conditions and withstand and rapidly recover from disruption due to emergencies."

Japan has repeatedly demonstrated this capability in the face of disasters, as well as through continuous improvement of preparedness and mitigation efforts, which are a model to the world.

And yet, no one could have been adequately prepared for the great Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck showing us that even the most meticulous preparedness is not going to thwart the potential damage of natural disasters.

Our strong technical ties with the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare allowed us to engage immediately following the earthquake, bilaterally with Japan and multilaterally through the Global Health Security Initiative, an informal, international partnership among like-minded countries to strengthen health preparedness and response globally.

At the request of our Department of State, HHS deployed radiation and communication experts to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to work with our State Department and Japanese counterparts on monitoring the response and engaged with your ministry of health on risk communication.

As HHS worked with Japan and our American partner agencies to support your national response and ensure the safety of the 150,000 Americans in Japan, Americans witnessed amazing examples of Japanese resilience and spirit. One reporter covering the response put it this way "The country shows only co-operation between people: generosity, order, industriousness and civilized behavior. No looting, no whining. Very little panic, if any, and no demands for some mythical 'them' to fix it."

The Fukushima 50, led by Masao Yoshida, worked around the clock in the face of incredible risk to mitigate the radiation release from the crippled plant.

Just as the United States responded to Katrina by improving its response capacities, Japan also updated its regulations and procedures in response to the earthquake. HHS has benefited from our ongoing exchange of technical information on response capacities as Japan prepares to host the 2020 Tokyo games. We know preparedness is a constant state of vigilance and continuous improvement, and we are honored to engage in that shared work with Japan.

When the Tohoku earthquake struck, the world's axis shifted, the world's rotation changed, and Honshu, the very land upon which we stand, moved 8 feet.

This morning, I was honored to visit Fukushima Prefecture, where I witnessed the devastation that the tsunami wrought upon the coastline, including multistory buildings that were crumpled as if made of paper.

I saw the impact that the ensuing nuclear incident had on local towns, on local schools, on local health facilities. I heard the stories of people who evacuated.

I met with people who decided to return, to respond, and to rebuild. At lunchtime, I sat and I ate with Mr. Watanabethe mayor of Okuma. We spoke of the challenges of evacuation, and the challenges of resettlement. We spoke of the importance of infrastructure, communication, strong leadership, and planning in advance for things we all hope will never come to pass.

We were joined by Dr. Keichi Tanigawa a medical professional much like yourselves, who helped lift the burden of uncertainty around potential health effects by instituting the Fukushima Health Management Survey.

Despite the immense tragedy and loss of life due to the earthquake and tsunami, the evidence does not suggest any long-term direct public health effects from the radiation released over Fukushima. I was relieved to hear that.

As part of my tour of the prefecture this morning, I visited areas still within the exclusion zone, areas still undergoing decontamination. During my tour of your hospital and campus, hearing about the same tools, like stripping the soil and cleaning the buildings, I realized how very much at the center of everything FMU was.

I learned about how central your work was to so much of the response: how your hospital suspended routine activities in the weeks after the earthquake; how you cared for critical patients while making sure chronic care patients were evacuated to other locations for their care; how you responded to difficulties around access to blood and blood products by learning and implemented lessons from Australia, adapted to fit the unique situation.

I learned more and more about how these plans were prepared, continue to be practiced, and are actively shared by you, the staff and students of FMU, so that the rest of the world can develop their own plans for when the unimaginable strikes. I have learned something of the tenacity and mindfulness of Japan today.

When faced with disaster, the military, civilian institutions, academic organizations, and private citizens joined forces to respond. When faced with the overwhelming loss of nearly 16,000 people, people joined together to mourn, to treat the more than 6,000 injured, and search for the two and half thousand people still missing from the tragedy. When FMU was cut off from the water supply, there were no U.S. navy boats filled with fresh water to assist like there were by Daiichi. When you were faced with making sure a four-day supply of water could last, you rose to the challenge. You made personal sacrifices to help the communal good, the type of sacrifice I have seen in one form or another at every step of my journey today.

Last night I met with U.S. diplomats in Tokyo, including the current head of the U.S. Mission, Chargé d'Affaires Joe Young. I was pleased to see that diplomats here continue the deep abiding relationship between the U.S. and Japan.

In particular, Joe talked about his visit to Fukushima last month participating in the Tour de Tohoku charity bike ride. As we discussed my planned visit to Fukushima today, we thought about how Americans have benefited from Japanese assistance in our times of need, and how privileged we were to reciprocate.

We thought of how close our nations are, and how the Great East Japan earthquake brought us closer together—not only physically, though that 8 feet jump Honshu made was indeed eastward after all—but also closer as peoples and nations with a deep friendship between us.

I feel blessed to have been invited to come visit and meet with you today, and it has truly been an honor and a privilege to learn from you. I look forward to many more years of close cooperation between our countries, so thank you again for inviting me here today.

Content created by Speechwriting and Editorial Division 
Content last reviewed on October 25, 2019