Today, the Washington Post’s Ben Pershing called the outbreak of swine flu in North America an “unexpected challenge” for President Obama. Now, Obama’s advisers probably didn’t predict that his first 100 days in office would include this particular threat, but the U.S. intelligence community has been aware of the security threats posed by infectious diseases for a long time.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair’s annual threat assessment, presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in February 2009, included the following:
“Highly publicized virulent infectious diseases—including HIV/AIDS, a potential influenza pandemic, and ‘mystery’ illnesses such as the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)—remain the most direct health-related threats to the United States. The most pressing transnational health challenge for the United States is still the potential for emergence of a severe pandemic, with the primary candidate being a highly lethal influenza virus.” The U.S. intelligence community did not just start thinking about these issues a few months ago. In 2000, the Environmental Change and Security Program hosted a presentation of the findings of a National Intelligence Estimate entitled The Global Infectious Disease Threat and Its Implications for the United States. In December 2008, the National Intelligence Council released Strategic Implications for Global Health, which built on the 2000 report but also explored non-infectious health issues like maternal mortality, malnutrition, and chronic disease.
The current swine flu outbreak has several geopolitical implications. First, governments and international organizations (particularly the World Health Organization) will be perceived as more or less legitimate based on their ability to contain and treat the disease.
Second, governments’ decisions to issue travel warnings or ban certain products coming from affected countries are made with an eye toward both political and health implications. For instance, after the European Union issued an advisory against traveling to the United States, the acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention struck back, saying it was unwarranted.
Finally, this outbreak of swine flu won’t do anything to burnish Mexico’s image as a tourist destination, which has already suffered from the brutal drug violence of the last year. Lagging economic growth in Mexico, due to fewer tourists and the fallout from the global financial crisis, could help fuel unrest or increase immigration to the United States.
For more on diseases that can spread between animals and people—and how this relates to the environment—see “Human, Animal, and Ecosystem Health,” a May 2008 meeting sponsored by ECSP.
Photo: Mexican police officers wear surgical masks to guard against the spread of swine flu. Courtesy of Flickr user sarihuella.