The National Security Beat: Bugs v. Bullets – Who’s the Mightier?

Whether caused by a bug or a bullet death is death, injury is injury, and disability is disability. Yet how we assess these threats – from microbe & man – and how we marshal our resources to meet them is starkly different. Left to the political class, national security is defined exclusively as guys with guns: so that’s what gets national attention, drives government policy and funding priorities.

SecurityHowever, a growing chorus of voices across the science and medical community are challenging that worldview saying that not only is it wrong, it’s dangerously wrong, because we’re turning a blind eye to what hurts us more – and has always hurt us more – microbes.

For example, the New England Journal of Medicine reminds us that “in the past 100 years, the ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918–1919 [which killed more people than WWI] and HIV–AIDS, caused the deaths of nearly 100 million people.” The article was tellingly titled “The Neglected Dimension of Global Security – A Framework for Countering Infectious Disease Crises.”

In today’s world, “We are just one major global pandemic away from significant economic and humanitarian catastrophe … [therefore] “we can no longer view disease pandemics solely through the lens of health because they threaten whole economies and large swaths of humanity,” said Judith Rodin, in her opening remarks at the prestigious National Academy of Medicine’s forum, “The Neglected Dimension of Global Security: A Framework to Counter Infectious Disease Crises.”

Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, founding director of the Infectious Disease Center for Research & Policy at the University of Minnesota, agrees: “Infectious disease is the deadliest enemy faced by all of human kind,” he says. In his new book Deadliest Enemy, he explains why: Because it has “the potential to alter the day to day functioning of society, halt travel, trade, and industry, or foster political instability.”

bugs 1In Osterholm’s view “there are only two microbial threats that … fit this description” for pandemic potential. One is “antimicrobial resistance and the very real threat of moving ever closer to a ‘post-antibiotic era’ … a world more like that of our great-grandparents where deaths due to infectious diseases we now consider treatable are once again commonplace.” The other is influenza, “the one respiratory-transmitted infection that can spread around the world in short order and strike with lethal force.” Some variant of the bird flu, for example.

This new thinking is nicely summed up in an interview that took place at the University of Arizona before a public audience this past February. David Gibbs, Professor of History, was speaking with “arguably the most important intellectual alive today,” Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at MIT.

After discussing the threats posed by climate change and nuclear war, the two weighed in on infectious disease. Professor Gibbs nicely frames the issue. The italicized emphases in Chomsky’s reply are mine.

Professor Gibbs: “In popular discussion, the phrase ‘national security’ has come to mean security against military threats almost exclusively. This narrative downgrades the significance of nonmilitary threats, such as climate change, antibiotic resistant bacteria, or viral epidemics. It would seem that there is an imbalance between perceived military threats, which receive overwhelming governmental funding and press attention on the one hand, and nonmilitary threats, which receive relatively little on the other hand. How do we account for the apparent overemphasis on military threats?”

Noam Chomsky:

Well [with] military threats, you can see them actually, you can imagine it. People don’t think about it enough. But if you think about it for a minute, you can see that a nuclear attack could be the end of everything. These other [nonmilitary] threats are kind of slow, maybe we won’t see them next year. Maybe the science is uncertain, maybe we don’t have to worry about it. Climate change is the worst, but there’s others.

Take pandemics. There could easily be a severe pandemic. A lot of that comes from something we don’t pay much attention to: Eating meat. The meat production industry, the industrial production of meat, uses an immense amount of antibiotics. I don’t remember the exact figure, it’s probably like half the antibiotics. [It’s around 80%.] Well antibiotics have an effect: They lead to mutations that make them ineffective. We’re now running out of antibiotics that deal with the threat of rapidly mutating bacteria. A lot of that just comes from the meat production industry.

Well, do we worry about it? We ought to be. You go into a hospital now, it’s dangerous. We can get diseases that can’t be dealt with, that are moving around the hospital. A lot of that traces back to industrial meat production. These are really serious threats, all over the place. … but it’s hard to bring out the enormity of these issues, when they do not have the dramatic character of something you can show in the movies, with a nuclear weapon falling and everything disappears.

Chomsky’s seemingly simple reasoning actually has a lot of hard science behind it; in fact, it garnered one researcher the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for explaining the wayward thinking behind poor decision making in areas such as risk assessment. In brief: We assume that if examples of something come easily to mind they must also be more frequent. But that’s false. The classic example that has made its way into first year university textbooks is the easy availability of images we call up – when, for example, national security is discussed – of planes crashing into the World Trade Center. That’s exactly what Chomsky means when he says that “something you can show in the movies” will trump the mundane, regardless of how menacing the mundane may actually be.

And what’s more mundane than microbes: those unpronounceable, polysyllabic, Latin-named, invisible creatures, that never say anything, carry guns or topple buildings, that are talked about in code in fancy journals that no one has heard of, by people – scientists – a rather reclusive species that most of us have never met?

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