In the rush of constant news updates on swine flu, we must recognize that controlling the spread of this disease is not simply a health concern but also one of national security. And in today's globalized world, the spread of swine flu has become not just a U.S. national security threat but every country's national security threat.
The serious implications of this epidemic can be seen in the language used by officials and by the appearance of government leaders taking the podium. The World Health Organization has elevated its pandemic alert level from 3 to 5, indicating increasing likelihood (albeit not inevitability) of a worldwide pandemic.
In Mexico, the epicenter of the current outbreak, President Felipe Calderon has announced decisive measures to limit spread of the disease. In this country, President Barack Obama reassured the nation earlier this week that public health officials are responding aggressively and responsibly.
In New York City, where the largest U.S. cluster of cases has been identified, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also been working to calm local residents. He said that the day-to-day developments around the outbreak have not surprised health officials, adding that officials expect swine flu to continue to spread and to claim some lives (the first U.S. swine flu death was reported early Wednesday morning).
Mr. Obama and Mr. Bloomberg, along with other leaders, obviously want to calm citizens. But their messages also send important signals to governments around the world and to the world's financial markets that there is a link between emerging diseases, such as swine flu, and national security.
Most emerging infectious diseases in recent decades have come from animals - which are often a significant source of family livelihoods, as well as international trade in food commodities.
Even small animal disease outbreaks can thus impact local economies, and national economies can be impacted through disruption of trade with other countries. And emerging infectious diseases can both cause and result from conflict, as well as social, economic and political instability.
Countries around the world thus have a stake in the timely detection and effective control of this contagion.
Notwithstanding the need to respond quickly and decisively to the current swine flu threat, the United States and other nations need to invest more in understanding these diseases and finding effective ways to limit their spread and impact - and one of the most cost-effective ways to do this is through global health research. Such research must be undertaken on both long- and short-term scales.
Research leads to both basic understanding of diseases and practical solutions for their control. In the case of the current swine flu problem, we need to understand the virus itself: who is at risk, how we can accurately and quickly diagnose it, and why cases in Mexico appear to be more virulent - causing dozens of deaths - compared to cases reported from other countries. We need to develop a preventive vaccine that can be produced rapidly to limit the impact of the new swine flu virus, which has now been reported officially from at least 10 U.S. states and three continents worldwide. We also need to study the effectiveness of our medical treatments and public health interventions to limit further transmission of the disease.
Health scientists and national security professionals are getting used to seeing each other in disaster preparedness planning meetings and press conferences.
This is the world we live in today. Let's marshal the best brains and institutional strengths across these diverse disciplines and around the world to prevent, detect and respond effectively to this latest infectious disease and others that will follow in coming years.
Dr. Melinda Moore is a senior health researcher in the Washington office of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research institution, and is an ambassador for Research!America's Paul G. Rogers Society for Global Health Research.
This commentary appeared in Baltimore Sun on April 30, 2009