Pick any of the serious infectious-disease outbreaks of recent years, and the chances are it started in one country and spread to others. The swine flu pandemic began in Mexico and soon swept into the United States; severe acute respiratory syndrome began in southern China and soon was in dozens of countries; the 2014-2015 Ebola virus disease outbreak that killed 11,314 people began in Guinea and spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone, and threatened many others.
The basic facts, that pathogens don’t stop at passport control and move fast in today’s globalized world, are why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been active in so many places abroad since the Ebola catastrophe.
At the time of the Ebola crisis, Congress approved a one-time, five-year emergency supplemental spending package, of which $600 million was sent to the CDC to help countries prevent infectious-disease threats from turning into epidemics. Anticipating that that money will run out in October 2019, the CDC has begun notifying country directors to begin planning withdrawal from 39 of 49 countries.
This is not a pullout of all CDC programs—activity abroad will go on in such areas as fighting polio, malaria, HIV and tuberculosis—but it does mean retreating from frontline outposts for preventing, detecting and responding to outbreaks. According to The Post’s Lena H. Sun, the CDC plans to pull out of China, Pakistan, Haiti, Rwanda and Congo, among others, but would remain engaged in 10 nations.
A retreat will be counterproductive. The money is a small fraction of what pandemics can cost later on. The CDC programs train front-line workers in outbreak detection and work to strengthen laboratory and emergency response systems.
A coalition of groups supporting the program reminded the Trump administration recently that the Ebola outbreak alone cost U.S. taxpayers $5.4 billion in an emergency supplemental appropriation. The CDC program is a good example of a relatively small investment that can pay big dividends and is part of a global health security initiative launched during the Obama years.
Congress should not let the CDC effort lapse. We’re not sanguine about the fiscal situation, with big tax cuts now in place and a new budget deal just signed that seems to be opening up the spending spigots. However, if the resources are available, this program merits a claim on them.
The next pandemic will come along sooner or later. The United States should not wait for the winds and waters to carry it here; far better to be prepared and vigilant abroad, and to fully underwrite the CDC’s ability to do so.