Fight the Flu More — Terrorism, Less

In the spring of 1918 an American soldier, slick with fever, staggered into the camp infirmary, joined by a hundred others that day and five hundred others in the week after. He was in training in Kansas to fight the Axis powers in World War I. The sickness he contracted flew from soldier to soldier, then to civilians and finally to Europe and the war. This sickness, the Spanish Influenza, was one of the greatest natural disasters in recorded history, claiming 50–100 million victims worldwide or three to five percent of the world’s population at the time. It felled five million Americans, most of whom were young, between 20 and 40 years old. Victims were suffocated slowly by gushing nosebleeds and fluid in their lungs. Those unable to recover drowned in their own body fluids.

Today the influenza and diseases like it afflict millions and represent the gravest of threats to American lives. The U.S. government should take the flu more seriously in its Financial Year 2018 spending (October 1, 2017 — September 30, 2018).

Every year, on average, the flu kills 20,000 Americans. It is a volatile disease at chronic risk of evolving into deadlier forms. Avian Flu — H5N1 — in particular is frightening because with a few genetic changes to be more transmittable, it would be deadlier than the Spanish Influenza.

At the same time, scientists are becoming ever more sophisticated in their understanding of disease and are conducting research that could lead to engineered sicknesses that are much deadlier than even those that are naturally occurring.

The U.S. government can protect Americans from these risks but is declining to do so. In the 2018 budget submitted to Congress, the president is cutting funding to fight epidemics.

President Trump wants to cut programs at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that provide emergency help for epidemics in other parts of the world that can easily spread to the U.S. in today’s era of cheap, fast travel. The president also wants to take $136 million (9.7%) from efforts to track disease outbreaks in the U.S. And $65 million dollars or 11% of the budget would be cut from programs to fight emerging threats such as anthrax and ebola.

As Congress considers its spending bills for FY2018, it should fully fund efforts to fight the flu before any other programs such as anti-terrorism, which are a worse buy.

The flu and diseases like it are important, owing to the scaleable deathtoll they can tally. They also have simple solutions: disease surveillance to catch outbreaks early; labs that can rapidly produce large quantities of a cure or vaccine; oversight and regulation of dual use technologies that could create a superbug more dangerous than any naturally occurring disease.

When debating how to keep Americans safe, the U.S. Congress needs to consider first and foremost how many Americans would die from a given risk. This creates a baseline to determine whether influenza or terrorism is an important threat. Next, Congress should consider whether there is a fix to the problem. If it is important and there is a fix, great: Fund the fix.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, since September 11, Americans are more likely to be crushed to death by falling furniture or a television than to die from a terrorist attack. The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog has other examples of ridiculous things that are more likely to kill you than a terrorist.

Even if you consider a terrorist an important threat, there is little you can do to stop him. According to the U.S.’s top spy, Dan Coates, director of national intelligence, homegrown terrorists will be the most frequent terrorist threat to the United States and also the most unpredictable.

The terrorists who crashed planes into Twin Towers received training and guidance in Afghanistan, a country that was and still is failed and in the midst of a civil war. The U.S. has sought, since then, to stabilize weak states and keep terrorists from a having a base of operations to launch attacks from Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, to little to no effect, despite a troop surge in Iraq, 15 years of war and trillions of dollars of spending. There is no proven way of stabilizing failed state.

Now compare the threat of the flu to the threat of terrorism. The flu poses a risk to too many Americans even on an average year (20,000 dead) and also has an easy fix, while terrorism is an infinitesimal threat being fought using unproven means.**

**On September 11, terrorists crashed two planes into the Twin Towers and one into the Pentagon, an imaginative, deadly suicide bombing whose enormity dwarfs that of others in the genre, which includes bombs in trash cans at the Boston Marathon, where three died and 260 were wounded, or bullets from an automatic rifle at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando, Florida, that claimed 49 lives and wounded 58. September 11, in terms of its loss of life and economic damage is more similar to an attack with a chemical or biological weapons such as anthrax or a dirty bomb made with radioactive materials. A terrorist with a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD)may be an important risk. A terrorist without a WMD, is much less of one.**

In terms of overall spending to keep Americans safe, funding for biosecurity should be taken care of before terrorism.

Besides terrorism, other threats aren’t as important, based on a cursory comparison that I plan to develop in later articles.

Nuclear weapons can kill a lot of Americans and in terms of importance are comparable to influenza. But I am uncertain whether there is a good fix. I rate every other area: conventional war with China and Russia and cyber security as a lower priority, since they would be less deadly to Americans. A terrorist planning an attack would be in that grouping, unless he is a PhD in microbiology fiddling with H5N1.