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Infectious diseases threaten U.S., world security

House panel hears dire warning from health experts

June 29, 2000
Web posted at: 6:19 p.m. EDT (2219 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Infectious diseases pose a serious threat to global political stability, and therefore to U.S. national security, health experts testified Thursday.

U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher and officials from the CIA's National Intelligence Council and the World Health Organization appeared before the House International Relations Committee.

The U.S. government has been studying the dramatic surge in infectious diseases around the world for the last several years.

"This health crisis has repercussions that are reverberating far beyond the sick rooms and the hospitals where its victims lie dying," said Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California. "It threatens to destabilize entire societies."

Much of the most up to date information stems from a National Intelligence Council report entitled "The Global Infectious Disease Threat and Its Implications for the United States," produced under the direction of David F. Gordon, the NIC's national intelligence officer for economics and global issues.

Gordon said the report's "most significant judgment is that new and re-emerging infectious diseases will pose a rising -- and in the worst case, a catastrophic -- global health threat that will complicate U.S. and global security over the next 20 years. These diseases will endanger U.S. citizens at home and abroad, threaten U.S. armed forces deployed overseas, and exacerbate social and political instability in key countries and regions in which the United States has significant interests."

Gordon said the United States also faces a direct risk from diseases that can be readily spread around the world through air travel and shipping. He cited the West Nile virus, which killed seven people in New York last year, and drug-resistant strains of malaria and tuberculosis as examples.

The United States cannot afford to ignore such risks, witnesses told the panel.

"I think we have to make sure we are a part of a global strategy of surveillance and response," said Satcher. "If we detect these viruses early -- even before they get to our country -- and we control them and contain them, then we significantly reduce the risk they will get to this country.

As the threat of contracting such diseases increases, so does the strength of the diseases themselves.

Dr. David Heymann, executive director for communicable diseases at the World Health Organization, told the committee it is important to try to eradicate diseases before they develop resistant strains. But he said the emergence of such strains mean there is less time to take action to against them.

He cited numerous examples of drugs which once led the fight against infectious diseases which no longer work well.

Penicillin, for instance, was once 100 percent successful against gonorrhea. Now it is virtually useless against strains of the disease in southeast Asia and other parts of the world.

Streptomycin, which was once the most effective drug available to cure tuberculosis, is no longer effective in many European countries.

And the anti-malaria drugs chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimethanmine are no longer effective in Thailand.

Heymann said the improper use of antibiotics is partly responsible for the rise of drug-resistant diseases.

Members of the House committee echoed the panelists' concerns.

"I think historians in the future may wonder why in our defense budget we spent so much defending ourselves from missiles and so little defending ourselves from diseases," said Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman of California.

CNN Producer Brad Wright contributed to this report



RELATED STORIES:
Red Cross warns of threat from preventable diseases
June 28, 2000
AMA recommends evaluation of anti-bacterial products
June 14, 2000
Antibiotic resistance a growing threat, WHO reports
June 12, 2000
CDC expands campaign against overuse of antibiotics
June 1, 2000
Experts see increased threat from new infectious diseases
April 26, 2000

RELATED SITES:
World Health Organization
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The Virtual Office of the Surgeon General


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