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U.S. Secretary of HHS: What The Ebola Crisis Can Teach Us About Zika and Flint

May 5, 2016, 12:19 PM UTC

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, knows a little something about handling a crisis.

Speaking at Fortune‘s “Most Powerful Women Evening With…” dinner in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday night, she walked the crowd through the onslaught of emergencies that her office has faced since she was appointed in 2014. On the list: the Central American refugee crisis, attacks on Obamacare, the Ebola outbreak, the opioid epidemic—and many more.

Burwell noted that while you can’t plan for every possibility, there’s always something to be learned. The Ebola crisis, for one, taught her three lessons that have important implications for two of the challenges the HHS is still wrestling with today—the Zika virus and lead-contaminated water in Flint, Mich.

1. “You cannot possibly communicate enough about an issue like Zika or Ebola,” she said. She went on to remind the dinner attendees that Zika is most dangerous for two very specific populations: pregnant women and their babies.

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2. “We as a nation and we as a world are only as strong as our weakest link,” said Burwell. “So when West Africa—the nations of Liberia and Guinea and Sierra Leone—were not able to prevent, detect and respond to Ebola, it became a worldwide problem.”

She believes that the only way to safeguard against a disease like Ebola or Zika mushrooming into a global issue is to invest in and support healthcare worldwide, so that countries get to the point where they can handle their own outbreaks before they spread.

3. “The importance…of the federal government of the United States of America working together as one,” said Burwell. “Whether that was here in Washington, D.C., or on the ground in those countries, having worked in government for eight years before I had never seen anything like it. And it shows us what we can do.”


“We can use that in Zika and we can use that in Flint,” continued the Secretary, who had returned from Michigan with President Obama earlier that day. “We saw that today with the President in Flint, in terms of, when we work together, break down silos… work in a way that lets us turn things around quickly in crisis.”

The dinner is the kickoff event for the annual Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership, a three-week program that pairs women from emerging markets with senior female executives from companies such as The Dow Chemical Company, Accenture, and Johnson & Johnson.

Burwell also shared her broader tips for dealing with a crisis with the mentees and other dinner guests. Surround yourself with a great team, she said, and “don’t be afraid to ask for help.” The mom of two noted that it’s vital to have help at home as well, saying that her husband stays home with their children. “What’s most important is that you and you partner figure out what works for you and your children,” she said. “It has to do with your own happiness and your partner’s happiness.”

Finally, don’t forget to “keep your eye on that long ball,” said Burwell. She tries to do so both mid-emergency and “when I’m not in crisis, as well—which isn’t often.”