Originally created 04/29/00

Serious disease threat

Just a few years ago there was great optimism that many of the world's infectious diseases would be eradicated. Polio was beat back, tuberculosis was on the retreat and no one had seen a case of bubonic plague in years.

But the National Intelligence Council has issued a chilling report that should be heeded by Americans and their representatives on Capitol Hill. Analysts are concerned that infectious diseases pose an increasing threat to U.S. citizens, not only at home, but abroad, according to National Intelligence Council head John Gannon.

His group's recently-released report, "The Global Disease Threat and its Implications to the United States," says at least 30 previously unknown diseases have appeared globally in recent decades, ranging from the deadly HIV virus and Hepatitis C to Indonesian Nipah virus (which causes encephalitis). We're talking about diseases like mad cow disease, Ebola and Hanta viruses. Many of these new viruses and bateria have no known cure or vaccine. They add fuel to the fire of such old-news but still problematic diseases as measles, whooping cough and meningitis.

The report says infectious diseases kill about 170,000 Americans annually and that such deaths are soon likely to account for more military hospital admissions than battlefield injuries.

The report puts light on a problem pointed out in 1996 by the World Health Organization in a report that said the planet is on the brink of an infectious disease crisis, and blamed population growth, wars, civil turmoil and natural disasters as some of the contributing factors to the looming problem.

America's far-flung military operations can cause soldiers to acquire diseases in faraway places, and they can bring those illnesses home and infect others. Also, the report notes that uncontrolled illegal immigration is a major new source of spreading infectious diseases, a phenomenon that is true of all countries experiencing large influxes of refugees. Massive refugee movements from war or economic hardship, have historically created major health problems across the planet.

That being the case, politicians calling to curtail overstretched military operations and controlling unchecked immigration have a new argument: The threat new, serious diseases pose to our shores.

Policy makers need to remember, however, that a stable political climate across the continents is one of the best defenses against the spread of infections. Where there is upheaval, war and resulting refugees and famine, there will be polluted drinking water, unsanitary living conditions and epidemics. And that could make us all prisoners of our own borders.


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