This post originally appeared in CNN World.
Editor’s note: Andy Weber is Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs.
The U.S. and the world now face a perfect storm of disease threats. New and virulent pathogens, such as H7N9 avian influenza and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), emerge every year. Diseases respect no borders – a fact reiterated by the confirmation, last week, of the first case of MERS-CoV in the United States. Pathogens are becoming more resistant to antimicrobial drugs, and the possibility of bioterrorism continues to grow as new technologies make bioengineering cheaper and easier.
During the 2003 SARS outbreak, only eight people in the U.S. became ill and none died, but the six-month global outbreak left nearly 800 people dead worldwide with costs topping $40 billion. A new pandemic could kill millions and cost trillions.
With such threats in mind, we are in Helsinki for the first meeting on the world’s Global Health Security Agenda, a partnership of the United States government and more than 30 international partners to accelerate progress toward a world safe and secure from infectious disease threats. As part of this effort, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Department of Defense (DoD) have committed to provide a total of $40 million this year to 12 partner countries to rapidly advance our shared global health security goals. Over the next 5 years, this initiative will enable partner countries to strengthen their ability to prevent, detect, and effectively respond to infectious disease threats and better protect at least 4 billion more people.
After all, we have learned that new, dangerous, and highly mobile microbes – whether created by nature or by intention – can weaken a robust nation and devastate less-prepared countries. They pose substantial risks to our civilian workers and military personnel around the world, and detract from our ability to help respond when crises arise.
Stopping outbreaks where they start is the most effective and least expensive way to save lives here at home as well as abroad. It’s also the right thing to do. To accomplish this, we are improving how we deliver our programs to better prevent and defend against both naturally occurring diseases and deliberate biological attacks. Working together when appropriate will encourage the best use of our resources to improve the health security of other nations and, by extension, that of the United States.
CDC and DoD share a core mission: strengthening our national and health security. Collaboration between our two agencies has already improved diagnostic tests for plague and other infectious diseases, found better ways to use anthrax vaccines, and reduced the risk that terrorists could access dangerous pathogens around the world. We are also coordinating efforts to build and link global networks to improve real-time disease tracking.
For example, an inexpensive, rapid dipstick test to diagnose plague – similar to a drugstore pregnancy test – was developed by CDC scientists with some fund from DoD. This test, which costs about a dollar to produce and can diagnose plague in 20 minutes, is already in clinical trials in rural Africa. It also eliminates the need to grow massive numbers of plague bacteria in the laboratory, which can be dangerous for lab workers and raises the risk of inadvertent or intentional release of plague. This kind of collaboration saves the lives of patients, protects health workers, strengthens communities, and prevents outbreaks.
The DoD and CDC work together in broad areas to improve global health security, including laboratory science and safety such as field diagnostics such as the plague test, strengthen capacities of nations that lack resources to effectively manage infectious disease threats, and establish effective emergency operations centers. We also closely coordinate with the World Health Organization, whose director general, Dr. Margaret Chan, helped preside over the international launch event of the Global Health Security Agenda.
Our shared Global Health Security Agenda does not stop at disease outbreaks and bioterrorism attacks. All of the work conducted through this CDC-DoD collaboration will help countries develop their own capacities to address health challenges of all types and contribute to their economic development and stability. All countries need strong public health systems, and experience shows that strengthening day-to-day public health programs is the best way for us to deal rapidly and effectively with the inevitable emergencies.
Global health security is an essential investment for the United States and a top priority of the Obama administration. A broad-based, bipartisan coalition recognizes the critical importance of better protecting Americans by strengthening our nation’s global partnerships to increase health security capacity around the world.
The U.S. government and our international partners have an unprecedented opportunity to make the world – and ourselves – stronger and safer through our commitment to closer cooperation on global health issues. Helping other countries protect their own people also means greater security for Americans.