Focus at Four: How the flu uncovered a 'serious flaw' in the American healthcare system

As U.S. territory Puerto Rico struggles to rebound after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, American officials are worried about facing a new crisis related to the disaster there: a shortage of IV bags for the heightened flu season on the mainland.

That's because, according to disaster researcher and Texas A&M Bush School of Government and Public Service professor Morten Wendelbo, about 40 percent of the mainland's IV bags come from Puerto Rico. After Maria, the creation and transport of those IV bags are severely lacking.

"It's a bit of an unhappy coincidence that the hurricane has left Puerto Rico reeling and out of shape to produce a lot of the medical equipment, and the fact that we're being hit by a severe flu at the same time," said Wendelbo.

While Wendelbo stresses 'coincidence' in this case, he points out that in a large-scale disaster, both circumstances would be present: a greater need for these medical supplies and a decreased ability for the market to produce them.

"Almost all of our medications, at least some part of them come from [overseas]," said Wendelbo. "So when a disaster becomes really difficult to source these from abroad, and we can't produce them at home."

Wendelbo cites possible scenarios such as natural disasters, conflict, war, even bioterrorism.

"For example, if India and China--where most of our medications come from--were hit by an infectious disease first, by the time it gets to the U.S., we can't source these medications where they used to be produced because people simply aren't capable of producing them," Wendelbo says.

Plus, "there's a limit to how much we can store," said Wendelbo.

Wendelbo isn't suggesting that the United States begin to produce these medications here at home.

"It's there because it's cheaper to produce it abroad, where salaries are significantly lower than here on the mainland," said Wendelbo. "It just makes sense for everyone."

What he is doing is calling upon both the public and private sectors to understand these global supply chains and changing direction when necessary.

"As soon as [Hurricane Maria] hit, we should have reacted, knowing that there was a weak link, and started sourcing [IV bags] from somewhere besides Puerto Rico," Wendelbo said.

For Wendelbo's own write-up on this research, see the Related Links. For the full conversation on First News at Four, see the video player above.