Stopping epidemics early protects national security

Countering extremism and aggression, guarding U.S. land, sea and air borders, and defending democracy and economic freedom are all in the United States’ national security interests.

Stopping epidemics such as Ebola wherever they break out is also a pillar of America’s National Security Strategy. “We cannot have prosperity if we’re not healthy,” President Trump told African leaders last fall.

But people all over the planet benefit too, when the United States and other countries work to contain disease outbreaks. Tim Ziemer, senior director for global health security and biothreats at the National Security Council, says the White House “has strongly championed the global health agenda.”

More than 60 nations have formed a partnership called the Global Health Security Agenda to mobilize against health threats. The partnership began in 2014, the same year the deadly Ebola epidemic broke out in West Africa. That epidemic “shook the world,” says epidemiologist Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

progress report on the U.S. role in the global partnership cites these results:

  • In Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, 38,000 health care workers and community health agents learned infection prevention and control techniques.
  • Kenya has a new surveillance system for diseases spread by animals, including rabies, Rift Valley fever and anthrax.
  • Pakistan doubled measles vaccinations in one province, and Ethiopia got help to contain a measles outbreak in the Somali region.
  • Labs in Bangladesh can now detect anthrax, hemorrhagic fever, leptospirosis and other pathogens.
  • Improved community surveillance helped Vietnam detect 100 local outbreaks; a pilot system now operates nationwide.
Teenage girl looking toward gloved hand holding device next to her forehead (© Sunday Alamba/AP Images)
A teen’s temperature is taken to test for Ebola. (© Sunday Alamba/AP Images)

In an interconnected world, “a pathogen that begins in a remote town can reach major cities on all six continents in 36 hours,” says Schuchat, who filled in as CDC head before AIDS researcher Robert Redfield became the director in April.

Helping countries prepare

Ziemer, a retired Navy rear admiral who previously spearheaded U.S. efforts to drive down malarial infections worldwide, says the Global Health Security Agenda “has served as an accelerator for preparedness.”

Ebola, which claimed 11,000 lives, “helped the world realize how vulnerable we were — and we still are,” Ziemer says.

The Global Health Security Agenda countries work with the World Health Organization and other public and private sector health groups. The U.S. has contributed $1 billion. Aid funneled through the CDC — known for its medical mystery solving — and the U.S. Agency for International Development helped 17 countries in Africa and Asia learn how to detect and contain lethal viruses and acquire the sophisticated equipment needed to do so.

Two men taking samples from a camel's nose (PREDICT/Kenya)
A Kenyan field veterinarian doing disease surveillance swabbed a camel’s nose. (PREDICT/Kenya)

Schuchat described what happened when Liberia — which got an infusion of global health security aid — reported 14 cases and eight deaths from an unexplained illness. “The country quickly mobilized 14 U.S.-trained Liberian disease detectives, activated the new national Public Health Emergency Operations Center and deployed a rapid response team,” she said.

Lab tests identified the culprit as meningococcal disease, a lethal but treatable bacterial illness. The fast action limited the outbreak to 31 cases and 13 deaths.