The world is a complex place and is becoming more so. Many news and analysis sources describe recent health events. Our work is unique because it describes current health events, but also analyzes the significance in the context of the existing political and economic setting.
We explore those health questions that have a direct impact on national security, such as the infectious disease outbreaks (especially zoonotic diseases not native to North America) and how they can affect the foreign policy of the United States. We produce analyses on various public health issues and organize planning workshops for organizations grappling with concerns about best practices to protect their staff or other constituencies during health emergencies.
Health has a direct impact on a variety of national security concerns. We address short-term and long-term consequences of doing nothing or implementing various solutions. One example of a topic of importance is nutrition, especially for growing children. Inadequate nutrient consumption has the immediate consequence of stunting growth and increasing susceptibility to some infectious diseases. The longer-term consequences may include an impaired ability to perform well in school, a higher risk of falling victim to some chronic diseases, and a reduced ability to achieve optimal participation in the labor force.
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During the 2016, I addressed the American Veterinary Medical Association on the topic of food security, animal health, and its impact on the labor force. During 2014, I addressed the United States Department of State on the link between good nutrition and its role in infectious disease in humans. I have also lectured on how international institutions such as the World Health Organization, Food and Agricultural Organization, and the World Organization for Animal Health cooperate to improve human health. I have also organized workshops to assist U.S. government and international organizations in identifying, analyzing, and improving policies and procedures to achieve better health outcomes.
I have served in the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of State, and other Federal institutions providing research and analysis on a variety of national security and health issues. I hold undergraduate degrees in international relations and economics from The Catholic University, as well as graduate degrees in East Asian Studies and International Economics, and Public Health, both from the Johns Hopkins University.
Sharon Jackson, M.A., M.P.H.
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A recent surge in the number of measles cases in the United States and elsewhere along with the findings of two scientific studies that reported measles infection reduces the immune response to other diseases points to previously unrecognized public health vulnerabilities for those who have not been vaccinated for measles. The findings, which were described in the fall of 2019[i],[ii], show the pathology of measles infection causes a reduction in the body’s ability to mount an effective immune defense against a disease for which the person has pre-existing immunity (either from infection recovery or successful vaccination) and it also reduces the body’s ability to defend against an infectious disease that is new. Measles one of the most highly infectious viral diseases and has a major impact on the health of children. This circumstance calls for a renewed effort to prevent the spread of measles through vaccination and a robust public health contingency plan to respond the emerging outbreaks.
Although measles was largely eliminated in the United States in 2000, declining vaccination rates encouraged by a campaign to falsely associate measles vaccination with a coincidental increase in autism spectrum diagnoses has led to an increase in measles infections, especially among children. Measles is a reportable disease, so surveillance for disease occurrence is a regulatory requirement and robust. What is less clear, however, are which communities are at greater risk for contracting the disease due to vaccine refusal. For example, communities of children may be based on where they attend daycare or school and may be different than the geographic neighborhoods where they live. This is why contact tracing must be especially precise for both geospatial and temporal data. In addition, the reasons for children not receiving the measles vaccination are not always due to lack of access to healthcare or cost but may be the result of decisions by parents or caregivers to withhold the vaccine. This is why it is useful to ascertain the vaccination status of persons in the community with a high degree of certainty as part of investigating an ongoing outbreak. The fact that measles can only be controlled by maintenance of a vaccination rate greater than 90% leaves communities vulnerable. Other infectious diseases, including those associated with children, could also become more problematic as previously acquired immunity from recovery or vaccination is degraded as a consequence of catching measles.
Measles is not a benign disease. Although children who have become infected generally recover without any long-term consequences, the percentage of children who experience life threatening symptoms such as pneumonia or encephalitis, or death is not insignificant. Childhood measles vaccination is essential for the prevention of measles outbreaks in the United States, serious complications associated with measles infection, as well as other infectious diseases.
[i] V. N. Petrova, B. Sawatsky, A. X. Han, B. M. Laksono, L. Walz, E. Parker, K. Pieper, C. A. Anderson, R. D. de Vries, A. Lanzavecchia, P. Kellam, V. von Messling, R. L. de Swart, C. A. Russell, Incomplete genetic reconstitution of B cell pools contributes to prolonged immunosuppression after measles. Sci. Immunol. 4, eaay6125 (2019
[ii]Choy, Mark S. Wilson, H. Benjamin Larman, Ashley N. Nelson, Diane E. Griffin, Rik L. de Swart and Stephen J. Elledge Michael J. Mina, Tomasz Kula, Yumei Leng, Mamie Li, Rory D. de Vries, Mikael Knip, Heli Siljander, Marian Rewers, David F., Measles virus infection diminishes preexisting antibodies that offer protection from other pathogens. DOI: 10.1126/science.aay6485 (6465), 599-606.366Science
Violence and associated risk factors
Many risk factors are relevant in assessing the potential for violent acts. Information on previous violent behavior and substance abuse should be considered.
The United States experienced numerous mass shootings during 2019 and these incidents have called into question the linkage between mental illness and homicidal violent behavior. A U.S. Government report[i]states mental illness, by itself, does not increase the probability someone will commit violence against others. Patients with mental illness are, in fact, are more likely to be victimized by violence than the general population.[ii]When mental illness occurs simultaneously with other risk factors such as substance abuse, however, there may an increase in violent behavior.[iii]Given this assessment, a more comprehensive mental health screening during the background check process for the purchase of firearms could reduce injuries and deaths from gun violence if such screenings address other risk factors for violence. Substance abuse, and characteristics such as poor impulse control, previous violent behavior, bullying, demonstrated disregard for the welfare of others, aggressive driving, and fire setting are relevant in assessing if it is safe to sell a gun to a prospective purchaser.
Epidemiological analysis is a useful tool for quantifying health risks. It is data driven and can provide an unbiased clinical assessment. Epidemiological data provides the basis for making diagnosis and treatment decisions and also identifies how mental illness and other violence risk factors increase the probability of violent behavior. At the same time, however, there are violence associated risk factors and behaviors that may never be observed by mental health professionals because they do not necessarily trigger a formal mental health evaluation or criminal investigation. For example, animal cruelty behaviors have been retrospectively correlated to later incidents of violence. Unless the animal cruelty incident resulted in a formal investigation, there is no mechanism to capture such information for the background check process.
The challenge of improving the background check process is to incorporate more data that is relevant to a risk assessment for future violent behavior. Documented evidence of antisocial behavior associated with violence could exist in a variety of databases including driving records, local social service agency records, school records, or medical records. Such information as well as Information collected by law enforcement agencies from online sources relating to threatened use of violence, such as racial animus, should be made available to the background check system for review before a gun purchase license is granted.
[i] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Mental Health Myths and Facts,” August 29, 2017 available at https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/mental-health-myths-facts on September 22, 2019.
[ii] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Mental Health Myths and Facts,” August 29, 2017 available at https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/mental-health-myths-facts on September 22, 2019
[iii]U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention, “The Social-Ecological Model: A Framework for Prevention, available at https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/publichealthissue/social-ecologicalmodel.html on September 23, 2019.
It is a human inclination to focus on the urgent, that which presents an immediate problem, over the important, that which causes permanent and detrimental long-term consequences. While behaviors that focus on immediate threats have served humans well by enabling us to survive, it is essential now to analyze and consider long-term repercussions of delaying effective actions to ensure survival in the face of climate change. This future threat is important because the damage is cumulative and largely irreversible. One unyielding truth is that the planet has a closed ecosystem and everyone will be affected by climate change. The U.S. has yet to undertake all of those policy changes that will reduce global warming. The time to reverse climate change has already passed and we are rapidly approaching the deadline when mitigating its worst outcomes is still possible. Health experts have long understood that the key to optimal health is prevention of disease. Preventing future consequences of climate change, like disease prevention, will lower the costs associated with responding to a long-term environmental crisis.
According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the injurious effects of global warming include ocean level rise and inundation of coastal communities. Southern Florida is already experiencing this phenomenon. Seasonal hurricanes will become more intense and dangerous. Productive farmland will become less productive due to changes in rainfall and temperature. Wildlife species that provide important ecological services such as plant pollination will leave their current habitats because of deteriorating environmental conditions and increasing exposure to hazards such as disease and predation. Additionally, current patterns of infectious disease spread will change as human disease vectors overtake new areas and become established. The U.S. government Global Change Research Program reported the failure to alter activities causing climate change will result in damage to the economy, local communities, and domestic infrastructure.
The warming of the oceans is expected to increase the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide and reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen in seawater. As the temperature of the ocean increases, dissolved gases escape into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and an increased atmospheric concentration traps heat and increases global warming. As oxygen escapes into the atmosphere, it decreases the amount available to marine life and can be expected to affect fisheries and food security. Ocean warming also plays a role in the development of toxic algae blooms, such as the ones that occurred in Florida during the summer of 2018 that killed marine life, caused economic losses, and caused illness in humans. The worldwide inventory of the elemental building blocks of the air, water, and soil that exist now are what future generations will have available.
A related corollary is that the waste products we discard remain in the environment unless they are chemically broken down by natural or artificial chemical processes. Climate change also can be an issue in the effort to contain dangerous refuse that has been insufficiently sequestered underground. One of the lessons from the hurricanes that struck the southern Atlantic coast of the U.S. during 2018 was the holding ponds of toxic chemicals from industrial mining are not a permanent solution to their disposal. When the storms passed and flooded the holding ponds, they overflowed and sent the waste products into nearby rivers and streams, contaminating the water supplies of downstream communities. Freshwater is but a small percentage of all water that exists on the earth and the effective recycling of this critical resource is essential to human and other terrestrial life forms. Natural processes have provided sufficient freshwater resources to maintain life for hundreds of thousands of years. However, if these supplies are diminished by the effects of climate change, human life will be directly threatened. It is already the case that national security experts believe a major source of conflict in the future will be competition for water and efforts by states to guarantee access to that essential resource. Human survival is truly dependent on wise husbanding of worldwide water resources.
Runaway climate change will alter the natural world. Science projects many of these changes will be catastrophic to the health and well-being of humans and other species. The failure to take corrective action to mitigate the effects will cause harmful consequences for all of us.
Health is a quintessential element of national security. It is critical to a strong military force, which is the traditional notion of national security. It is also essential to other elements of national security such as the economy, the society, and political equilibrium (specifically the narrowing of health disparities). The simple fact is that if the country’s population is not healthy, it has downstream effects on the entire country.
Recent proposals to further reduce nutrition support for the poor can pose a long-term threat to security because it diminishes the ability of about 13 percent of the U.S. population to achieve optimal health and participate in the various activities that make the United States a strong and secure country. Inadequate nutrition can have an immediate effect on the ability of an adult to work, over time it has detrimental effects on physical and cognitive development in children. Inadequate nutrition in adults and children compromises immune function and increases susceptibility to infectious disease and can play a role in the development and progression of chronic disease. Ill-heath is a significant factor in lost labor productivity and decreased economic production and a significant direct cost to the economy.
Production that does not occur due to labor force non-participation ultimately manifests in decreased economic output and lower government revenue, which will have a direct impact on government funding to provide public services such as internal and external security, education, transportation and electricity infrastructure, and healthcare.
The Constitution requires the federal government to conduct a census every ten years. Among the reasons are to realign congressional representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, apportion funds to pay for federal government functions and infrastructure, and to provide baseline population data for disaster and crisis response.[i] The decennial census is designed to count every person living in the United States without regard to citizenship status. These counts are updated regularly with data collected from the American Community Survey, a statistical estimate of population changes from year to year. All of the above mentioned uses of the census data are critical but none have the same immediate impact as having accurate data when the federal government is asked to respond to a natural disaster or a health emergency. Without accurate data on the number and location of people who are affected by an emergency, the crisis cannot be addressed effectively. Any policy that may encourage people not to respond to the census questions is inconsistent with the requirement specified in the U.S. Constitution and the best interest of the people of the United States.
When a natural disaster strikes a community, immediate assistance is required to save lives and protect property. First responders must have accurate information about how many people could be affected and where they live to do their jobs. A census undercount could result in insufficient resource deployment, leaving some people without appropriate assistance. A public health crisis, such as a severe influenza outbreak, could result in some affected people not receiving treatment if public health responders do not know the total number of people who are at risk of becoming sick due to inaccurate or incomplete census information. Such a circumstance would negatively affect efforts to control the outbreak and limit illness and mortality. Even during an average year, more than 30,000 people die from influenza infection, so the potential for harm is significant. Citizenship status is not important to responding to a natural disaster or controlling a disease outbreak; what authorities really need to know is how many people may need help.
A census undercount has numerous negative effects, maldistribution of federal resources for representation, infrastructure, and social programs as well as an inadequate response to natural disasters and public health crises. Anything that impedes a full count of every person living within the United States will harm the entire country. Every possible effort should be made to accurately count each person resident in the United States and universal participation is critical.
[i]See U.S. Bureau of the Census, https://www.census.gov/about/what.html
Revitalizing infrastructure remains an important imperative for the federal government. Legislation to support the rehabilitation and improvement in transportation, power generation, telecommunications and other nationwide systems could facilitate economic growth and improve population welfare. Although health infrastructure does not receive as much attention in discussion of national infrastructure priorities, it is an essential component that will support the national economy and also improve lives. Any policy proposal to fund infrastructure improvements should include health infrastructure, especially in the areas of workforce, data systems, and crisis response; these areas were identified by a federal study as being critical parts of the national health infrastructure.[i]
While the United States spends about one sixth of its GDP on health related expenses, it still does not reap the same level of tangible benefits as other peer developed countries that spend much less on a per capita basis. Additionally, the emergence of climate change and exotic zoonotic diseases challenges to U.S. heath infrastructure in novel ways. A modern U.S. health infrastructure will need to develop capabilities across human and animal health to optimize benefits to the U.S. economy and residents.
Currently, there are workforce shortages in a variety of health fields including physicians[ii]and veterinarians[iii]. As the U.S. population ages, there is increased demands for health services. Also, for reasons that are not yet clear, the health status of younger Americans is worse that it was for previous generations of Americans at the same age and may be an additional cause of increased health service demand. [iv]Climate change has resulted in changes in disease patterns among animal populations. Previously unknown pathogens will likely increase the demand for veterinary clinical services including animal disease surveillance and outbreak management. Further integration of human and animal health, or “one health” infrastructure, will be essential for building additional health capacity.
Modernization and improvements of health systems, particularly in the areas of telecommunications and cybersecurity will support the needs of health infrastructure by improving medical record keeping and information access when patients are treated. Disease patterns will be identified and outbreak response can be occur more quickly. The recent approval for the merger of CVS Pharmacy and Aetna health insurance suggest a shift from large medical practices to retail health settings for routine healthcare. If stand-alone clinics become an increasingly popular source of preventive and well-being health services, more reliable and comprehensive access to individual medical records will facilitate optimal care.
Effective crisis response to health emergencies requires support from other critical infrastructures because the immediate requirement is to deploy resources as quickly as possible for rescue and recovery. Depending on the nature of the health emergency, such as hurricane response for example, rescue workers may need to get to disaster areas quickly to restore basic health services. Affected health infrastructure may require transportation, telecommunications, and electrical power systems as well as possibly erecting temporary clinical facilities to resume operations. A different health crisis may require specialized clinical isolation and treatment facilities be created to contain a widespread infectious disease outbreak. To the extent that a rapid and efficient response will minimize deaths and more severe health consequences, collaborations between various infrastructure stakeholders would ideally include exercise for a variety of health crisis scenarios.
Health systems and infrastructure are an important area of the overall U.S. infrastructure and must be an integral part of planning nationwide updates and modernization.
[i]See Healthy People 2020, Public Health Infrastructure, https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/public-health-infrastructure, accessed on June 9, 2019.
[ii]Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Physicians and Surgeons,
on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physicians-and-surgeons.htm (visited June 06, 2019). See U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, https://data.hrsa.gov/topics/health-workforce/shortage-areas, accessed on June 9, 2019.
[iii]See Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, https://www.avma.org/News/JAVMANews/Pages/181215e.aspx?PF=1, accessed on June 9, 2019
[iv] See Blue Cross Blue Shield, “The Health of Millennials,” https://www.bcbs.com/the-health-of-america/reports/the-health-of-millennials accessed June 9, 2019.
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