The Real Threat to National Security: Deadly Disease

The Real Threat to National Security: Deadly Disease
Mar 24 2017

While the Trump administration is proposing significantly increased military spending to enhance our national security, it seems to have lost sight of the greatest national security threat of all: our fight against infectious disease.

We already spend far more on our military than any other country in the world. To help pay for the increases, President Trump wants to cut back many federal programs, including those that prepare us to wage war against microbes, the greatest and most lethal enemy we are ever likely to face. This is where “defense spending” needs to increase, significantly.

President Trump’s budget would cut funding for the National Institutes of Health by 18 percent. It would cut the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development, a key vehicle for preventing and responding to outbreaks before they reach our shores, by 28 percent. And the repeal of the Affordable Care Act would kill the billion-dollar Prevention and Public Health Fund, which provides funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fight outbreaks of infectious disease. (While the budget also calls for the creation of an emergency fund to respond to outbreaks, there is no indication that it would offset the other cuts, or where the money would come from.)

Those cuts will not protect American citizens. They will diminish research and vaccine development and our ability to respond to the growing threats of antibiotic resistance and new infectious diseases.

Those agencies are already falling short, as we saw last year, when they couldn’t effectively respond to the Zika threat. What will they do when we face a real pandemic? With 7.4 billion people, 20 billion chickens and 400 million pigs now sharing the earth, we have created the ideal scenario for creating and spreading dangerous microbes. Trade and travel have connected most points on the globe in a matter of hours. More and more people are living in the microbe-rich megacity slums of the developing world.

By some estimates, the 1918-19 “Spanish” influenza killed more people than all the wars of the 20th century combined. Today, an influenza pandemic could be more devastating than an atom bomb. We are already witnessing an outbreak of influenza in birds — the H7N9 strain, in China — that could be the source for the next human pandemic. Since October, over 500 people have been infected; more than 34 percent have died. Most victims had contact with infected poultry, yet three recent clusters appear to be from person-to-person transmission. Will H7N9 mutate to become easily transmitted between humans? We don’t know. But without sufficient supplies of a vaccine, we are not prepared to stop it.

The spread of antibiotic-resistant microbes also continues at an ever faster rate. Last year a comprehensive review predicted that, if left unchecked, drug-resistant infections will kill more people worldwide by 2050 than cancer and diabetes combined. Without a global effort led by the United States to halt the spread of this resistance and support for development of new antibiotics, we are in danger of returning to a pre-antibiotic world in which a cut could prove deadly and surgery would not be worth the risk of infection.