It’s called “disease X” — a silent, deadly pathogen, waiting perhaps, in the bodies of animals and preparing to leap to humans. But thanks to the President Donald Trump and his administration, which is proposing massive cuts to foreign aid and U.S. public health funding, we won’t be ready for it when it strikes.
Researchers worry that disease X is right around the corner. Tom Frieden, former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said:
“We don’t know where the next threat will come from. … But we are certain there will be a next time.”
With the cuts planned by the Trump administration, one thing is certain: We’re not ready for this potential worldwide pandemic.
Preparing for global disease outbreaks is tricky enough as it is. The H1N1 “Swine flu” that came out of Mexico and took researchers unawares, as did the Ebola virus when it emerged from West Africa.
Julia Belluz warns that the U.S. has been unprepared for such a pandemic for a long while, but the risks now are alarmingly high. In recent years, the U.S. has offered paltry support to global and public health efforts to prevent outbreaks of diseases like Lassa fever, linked since January to 913 possible cases and 73 deaths.
Which means, of course, there’s been little or no support for these very same efforts to fend off Disease X.
Belluz writes that since humans like to travel and relocate to new places:
“…Mingling in unprecedented ways with the animals that harbor disease, we help viruses, bacteria, and fungi spread around the world with greater effectiveness and speed.”
Countries can’t prevent diseases from spreading across borders willy-nilly. Fighting to prevent them from spreading requires collaboration and cooperation across borders:
“They need to share information transparently about the outbreaks within their borders. They need to agree on plans to prevent and fight those outbreaks.”
In years past, the U.S. had a huge impact, what with the money contributed to fighting global scourges, as compared to others. And poorer countries have been able to depend on this for financial support and for technical expertise that does things like build disease surveillance networks to identifying and preventing outbreaks.
Traditionally, it has been the job of the CDC, USAID, the Department of the Defense, and the WHO to carry out this work.
And yes, Trump supporters, I know you’ll say:
“…Well, let them poor countries fend for themselves.”
But what are you going to say when that disease crawls up your leg and slaps you in the face?
Because if the Trump administration succeeds with its latest round of financial slicing and dicing, that’s what’s going to happen.
Keep in mind that during the past decade the WHO has declared four global health emergencies, and the CDC has responded to more than 1,000 outbreaks in the past five years.
How much does the Trump administration want to cut, and where?
Specifically, in its fiscal year 2019 budget, the administration proposes cutting the CDC’s funding by some 20 percent, from $7.2 billion to $5.7 billion.
If Congress passes this, it will shrink the CDC’s budget to its lowest level of funding since 2003.
John Auerbach, president, and CEO of Trust for America’s Health, a public health non-profit organization, says this is a terrible idea.
“To go back to 2003 is really quite disturbing. That was before we’ve seen the likelihood of what we used to consider very unusual emergencies — like significant weather emergencies and novel viruses creating epidemics that have become now almost routine.”
But here’s news that’s even worse:
In 2015, Congress provided USAID and the CDC with $1 billion to fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Congress also intended the funding to help poorer countries build up their disease detection and prevention services. Once that money runs out in 2019 there’s absolutely no indication that it’s going to be replenished.
As a result, the agencies are pulling out of 39 of the 49 foreign countries they are working in and cutting back on such crucial pandemic prevention efforts as training disease detectives in Liberia, cutting outbreak response times in Cameroon, and dialing back the construction of emergency operations centers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
And all this is happening at a time when the U.S. is going through a particularly deadly influenza epidemic, which Trump is silent on.
Writing for The Post, Ronald A. Klain notes that the current flu outbreak could turn pandemic, just as the Spanish flu did a century ago, in 1918, killing more than 600,000 Americans.
“Doctors today have more tools to combat such an outbreak, but our increased interconnectedness means we face a greater threat of rapid spread than we did a century ago. As a result, modern science will do less to protect us from a flu pandemic than most people suspect.”
But the anti-science Trump administration is throwing global health security under the bus. Klein writes:
“Our best defense against such a pandemic reaching our shores is an investment in global health security: stopping diseases overseas. But the Trump administration has undertaken a stunning reversal of 16 years of progress under President George W. Bush and Obama. The massive government funding bill approved in mid-February slashed funds for the CDC’s Prevention and Public Health Fund. Team Trump recently announced deep cuts to global health funding rooted in the Ebola epidemic, implementing an 80 percent reduction in the global reach to detect infectious disease outbreaks abroad. Trump’s newly released budget would wreak more havoc by cutting another $1 billion from the CDC.”
So thousands of people might die because of this, but thank goodness we have money for an overblown military parade.
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Featured image via Geralt/Pixabay.