Who’s protecting us from pandemic disease?

September 19, 2011 By Jane Kaminski

Last week, the movie Contagion premiered across the country.  It’s billed as a horror movie that could actually happen: a highly contagious and deadly disease sweeps around the world faster than wild fire as scientists scramble to fight it.  A pandemic like this represents the kind of global threat that cannot be solved by military means but require strong and coordinated civilian power.  Could the scenario in the movie really happen?  How do U.S. government programs work to prepare and protect citizens from this very real and serious threat?

As we know from the emergence of influenza variants nearly every year (such as H1N1-swine flu and H5N1- bird flu), viruses are able to spread rapidly around the world. With tourism and commerce, we’re more interconnected than ever.  Thousands of international flights span the globe each day, making it seem like an impossible task to effectively combat the spread of contagious illnesses that could cripple a country’s economy and overwhelm its response systems.

But back to Contagion: a new influenza virus sweeping around the world rapidly- how would we respond?  Around the world, U.S. global health programs are working to provide lifesaving education and treatments and monitor the transmissions and mutation of viruses.  These help US public health workers more accurately predict the likely mutations that we’ll see in viruses like influenza and preprea vaccinations for the flu before flu season begins.

The Center for Disease Control is the main agency that monitors infectious diseases for the United States, but USAID and the State Department have important roles in global health programs and disease surveillance.  For example, USAID is an integral part of the United States’ response to tuberculosis, commonly known as TB.  In the United States, until the onset of antibiotics, TB meant a painful illness and likely death, while today, itis rarely fatal.  However, strains of multiple drug-resistant TB have been appearing throughout the developing world that are difficult to treat, have a devastating effect on the communities abroad, and could be dangerous in the United States.  But one of the few development programs USAID runs in China is in a region with a particularly dangerous strain of multiple drug resistant TB.  Through this project, China allows the US to study the strain while we improve access to health care and educate the community.

In tandem with surveillance of infectious diseases, the United States maintains several programs that combat specific pandemic diseases.  President Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the current administration has bolstered its support for the global program.  PEPFAR fights AIDS/HIV in Africa and South East Asia by providing health education to at-risk populations, testing, treating pregnant women with HIV/AIDS to prevent inadvertent transmission to their children, and providing anti-retroviral medication to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.  While AIDS is far from eradicated, rates of transmission are being controlled and more and more people are catching the illness early, receiving medication, and being educated about the disease.

While scientists and global health officials agree that a scenario like Contagion is possible, programs in the international affairs budget are part of a comprehensive approach to the threat of pandemics.  Programs led by USAID and the State Department keep Americans better informed and safer from outbreaks of illness from overseas.  At the same time, USAID and the State Department are facing the possibility of cuts of 20% over two years that would severely impact U.S. global health programs and leave the U.S. more vulnerable.  Congress needs to recognize the role of global health and civilian programs to U.S. national security.