The National Security Threat the GOP Isn’t Talking About

“American politics is simple and fair: whoever can say ISIS in the spookiest voice gets to be the next president.”

That is a tweet that showed up on my feed last night during the GOP presidential debate. When I first saw the tweet, I laughed. Then, I screamed because it almost seemed true. The rhetoric the GOP candidates use to discuss foreign policy and national security is outrageously centered on selling fear. There are many problems with this rhetoric, but the biggest problem is that it completely missed the national security issues that are most pressing, and instead became a competition of who can say “Islamic terrorism” the most.

Completely absent from the discussion was the issue of public health as a national security threat.

I realize that while you read this you are waiting for me to prove that public health is really a national security issue as pressing as say defeating ISIS or alleviating tensions in the Middle East, and you may even be a little outraged that I would dare compare the three, but public health is a real and grave danger to our national security and the reason why is complex.

Here is the problem with communicable diseases - they spread rapidly, often at rates that are too hard to track once global transmission has begun. It is estimated that there are 100,000 flights a day worldwide. Each flight into this country from any other country has the potential to carry over dangerous and life threatening diseases that have no fear of TSA agents, metal detectors, or strip searches.

Allow me to name some of the communicable diseases that have led to pandemics and epidemics in America for reference: Measles, TB, HIV, Bird Flu, Swine Flu, Dengue Fever and internet’s favorite freak out, Ebola. I am sure you remember the hysteria of these diseases like they were yesterday, especially as some of these diseases are still being actively contracted by our fellow citizens. This threat is real and imminent. There is going to come a time where a disease migrates to this country like the ones I just mentioned and we will be unable to contain it.

One of the largest influences on this is prediction is that we do not track diseases and halt their spread before they enter America, and because of that, an epidemic will arise similar to the one of HIV hysteria in the 80’s. This time we may not be able to treat such epidemics in the same way we have been able to with HIV. Even with our ability to treat the HIV/AIDS crisis, it cost the lives of millions of Americans and took decades of spreading to even begin developing promising treatments. In addition to that, it has been over thirty years since we started seeking treatment for HIV and we still haven’t found a hopeful cure for the virus that causes AIDS.

Another crucial issue that will greatly impair our ability to effectively respond to a public health crisis is the resistance we are building up to antibiotics. With our growing resistance thanks to the injecting of antibiotics to the overwhelming amount of food we consume, there is going to come an epidemic for a disease that will be nearly not treatable and will infect millions upon millions.

In 2007 we took our first significant steps in addressing public health as a national security threat by establishing the Department of Homeland Security’s National Biosurveillance Integration Center. The mission of the center is to “rapidly identify, characterize, localize and track a biological event of national concern; integrate and analyze data relating to human health, animal, plant, food, water, and environmental domains; and to disseminate alerts and pertinent information.”

Before this group was established, there were agencies that tracked diseases such as the Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture. With the help of the Department of Homeland Security, these agencies would work together to secure our nation’s public health through jointly tracking diseases. Unfortunately, this method was extremely ineffective in practice and baffling in its methods of execution.

In the National Defense Magazine reported in an interview with Steve Bennett, the Director of the National Biosurveillance Integration Center, Bennett revealed that the “databases” you would assume these agencies were utilizing to track serious threats to our country were actually nothing more than spreadsheets and were not inter-operable among the agencies involved. He also noted that he spends the bulk of his time visiting other agencies in person to keep them updated.

Who ever said government runs inefficiently?

One reason why public health is such a challenging national security issue is its success requires global cooperation and a multi-faceted approach. Other countries need to be able to track the diseases in their country as well. They also need to have a rapid response team that reports to an inter-operable and global database to update the rest of the world of what may come next. This is a huge ask for countries, especially those still developing, but without global cooperation our ability to prevent diseases from going global and entering other countries will always fall short.

We also have to look at our domestic contribution to public health. The American health care system, which is not particularly known for its efficiency, cost effectiveness and low barriers to access, needs significant revamping. The American health care system isn't a health care system, it is a disease care system. The money and effort we spend preventing diseases isn’t even a fraction of the money and effort we spend treating them domestically and globally. We cannot have a serious talk about fighting public health and biothreats until we reform our horribly broken, fundamentally bizarre and seriously unjust health care system domestically. Until we begin to budget the necessary funds to disease prevention, we will continue to fail at protecting our fellow citizens from public health national security threats.

There is hope that the latest global crisis might spark the kind of reforms and programs we need. Just this week, the World Health Organization called for an emergency committee to discuss the Zika virus that has spread “explosively” from Latin American countries to numerous other locations around the globe. A World Health Organization scientist has even estimated there is likely to be 3 to 4 million Zika infections over the next year in the Americas alone. This could result in millions of infants with being born serious birth defects such as microcephaly, which is a severe and dangerous condition resulting in lifelong developmental problems.

Though the Zika outbreak is a colossal danger to America, we should do our best to take the advent of this crisis as an opportunity to create a framework that would allow us to best prevent biothreats from entering our country and becoming pandemics. Epidemiologists and international public health investigators predict more pandemics to arise in the future simply from cross-species transmission from wildlife, where many pandemics and epidemics stem from such as the Zika breakout we are seeing right now.

Though the upfront cost of implementing a stronger framework would be hefty, it would be a necessary and worthwhile investment. Peter Daszack, an international public health investigator, estimated that it would cost around $6.3 billion to investigate and monitor all viruses that infect mammals. This is a fraction of the cost required to respond to pandemics like Ebola. Peter Lawrence Summers, the former Director of the Economic Council of the White House, estimated the cost of responding to a recurrence of the 1918 flu outbreak. The final tally was around $1 trillion.

The time is long overdue for us to recognize public health threats for what they are, threats to our national security. We must make necessary investments and improvements both to our domestic health care system and the infrastructure we use to monitor global health threats. Not only would these investments save money in the long term, they would also save potentially millions of lives in the process and ensure our stability as a nation.

Mackenzie Slade is the Communications Associate for the Agenda Project and the Agenda Project Action Fund

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