Climate change emerges as disease-related security threat

By Jessica Q. Chen
Sunday, January 30, 2011

One of the most worrisome national security threats related to climate change is the spread of disease among people and animals, U.S. intelligence and health officials say.

But more than a decade after such concerns were first raised by U.S. intelligence agencies, significant gaps remain in health surveillance and response networks - not just in developing nations, but in the United States, according to those officials and a review of federal documents and reports.

And those gaps, they say, undermine the ability of U.S. and world health officials to respond to disease outbreaks before they become national security threats.

"We're way behind the ball on this," said Josh Michaud, who has worked at the Defense Department's National Center for Medical Intelligence and its Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System. "It's a collective action problem."

Michaud said monitoring currently is done largely through publicly available medical information and mathematical modeling, but that's hardly enough to spot sudden disease trends quickly.

U.S. intelligence officials list the spread of disease as one of their top climate-change-related security concerns, along with food and water scarcity and the effect of extreme weather on transportation and communications systems. Outbreaks of disease can destabilize foreign countries, especially developing nations; overtax the U.S. military; and undermine social cohesion and the economy at home.

In coming decades, more heat, humidity and rainfall could allow mosquitoes, ticks and other parasites to spread tropical and subtropical diseases to areas where they didn't exist previously, infecting populations that haven't built up resistance to them, intelligence and health officials say.

Malaria, cholera and other diseases are now being seen in parts of Asia and Africa where they weren't detected before, something experts attribute to climate change. Dengue fever returned to the United States in 2009 after a 75-year absence - and might spread to 28 states, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council study.

Plants and animals also have been affected. Bark beetle infestations, for instance, have ravaged forests from Alaska to the Southwest and threaten to decimate commercial forestry, experts warn.

U.S. mobilization

The U.S. government has mobilized its health intelligence community to get ahead of the problem, but many obstacles remain to identifying potential threats and responding to them.

Many countries lack the health infrastructure to detect diseases. Even the United States has significant holes in its public safety net due to budget cuts and inattention paid to the health risks of climate change.

"There is a gap in our surveillance to even determine whether the vectors are changing and new diseases are being created and spread," said Joy M. Miller, the senior global health security adviser for the National Intelligence Council, the center of strategic thinking for the CIA and other agencies that fall under the supervision of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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