When the deadly Ebola virus appeared in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year, the first reported outbreak since 2014, a rapid-response health care team snuffed it out quickly.
While any triumph over the lethal scourge should be commended, it’s also an early warning sign for the United States in an era of global travel, when outbreaks can easily leap across oceans.
In all, the toll from the global Ebola outbreak four years ago cost US taxpayers $5.4 billion in emergency assistance, The Washington Post reports, and sowed terror and disruption here at home, as American cities scrambled to quarantine travelers and mount responses of their own. Wisely recognizing the need to fight disease on a global scale, Congress approved a five-year, $600 million emergency initiative, led by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to shore up health systems in other nations.
Unfortunately, that effort is being gutted as money runs out. The CDC is dramatically scaling back its epidemic prevention programs in 39 of 49 countries, The Wall Street Journal reported, and expects to focus health care efforts in 2019 on just 10 “priority countries.” That list does not include Congo, site of the new Ebola outbreak, or Haiti, where cholera rages unabated, or China, where researchers worry that cases of bird flu could trigger a wider pandemic. But the CDC’s core budget is flat, at around $60 million, and the agency has been roiled by strife involving an ill-considered investment in tobacco stocks and the resignation of the director appointed last summer by the Trump administration.
A coalition of some 200 global health organizations sent a letter to the US Health and Human Services secretary pleading for a reprieve. Dropping any pretense of diplomatic sangfroid, a UN Dispatch report put it this way: “You should be freaking out.”
If the Ebola outbreak in 2014 seems remote, the widespread flu epidemic rolling across the United States provides a more urgent picture of the economic and human costs that come when prevention efforts lag. Only $150 million of the Obama-era package for fighting global epidemics remains, which won’t go far. HHS and the National Security Council reportedly plan to ask for more funding in President Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget, which is due out next month. Congress should make global health security a priority and restore funds for disease prevention on a broader scale. Even an administration that seems determined to isolate the United States and narrow its role in the world should recognize that deadly epidemics can’t be stopped at the border.