Jewish World Review June 24, 2003 / 24 Sivan, 5763

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Prairie dogs and mosquito bogs | We're reminded daily of clear and present dangers to this country: global terrorism; the nuclear threats of the two remaining members of the axis of evil, Iran and North Korea; ballooning budget and trade deficits; and the highest number of people unemployed in a decade. But the greatest potential risk facing our nation is unquestionably the number of emerging diseases that are threatening our public health.

These viruses have taken a devastating toll on the global economy and already are straining this country's public health systems. Even though we've been spared the worst of the SARS virus, that disease and others threaten both our health and our economy.

The World Health Organization has estimated the global cost of SARS alone to be more than $30 billion. And early estimates of the collective damage caused by all the emerging diseases run as high as $100 billion.

The Chinese government's decision to cover up SARS is the reason the virus spread so quickly worldwide and created an epidemic. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told me this week that SARS developed into a much greater problem because "China wouldn't let us come in and see what was taking place. We got alerted to the SARS problem sometime in the early part of February, but we really never got in to really examine it until sometime in March."

The effects have been most catastrophic in East Asia, where China's GDP growth could be cut by as much as 2 percent. The crisis, of course, is not restricted to Asia. JP Morgan Securities Canada estimates that Toronto is losing $30 million a day as a result of the SARS outbreak.

The United States has, to this point, controlled outbreaks here. In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention opened a $7.1 million emergency operations command center. Described as a "war room," the center was designed to help the CDC coordinate efforts to combat emergencies, such as SARS, West Nile virus or bio-terrorist attacks.

But while the United States has been effective at containing and responding to the threat of diseases such as SARS, there are many in the health care community who say there is still much more that needs to be done.

"I worry that we're not educating enough people that can work in the area of emerging disease," said William D. Hueston, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota.

Hueston says that there is a shortage of "disease detectives" who have the scientific and medical background, and who have access to the necessary tools for proper investigation and research.

There is also concern that the need to cope with emerging diseases such as SARS, the West Nile virus and monkeypox has overburdened a public health system already stretched well beyond its capacity. Some experts fear that the government may be diverting funds away from the nation's basic health care infrastructure in an attempt to predict what the next outbreak may be.

Philip Alcabes, an associate professor in the School of Health Sciences at Hunter College, said he is concerned about the way that money is being spent. "If the point of the 'war room' is to try to predict the next plague, then it's an effort that has to fail," Alcabes said. "The real disasters are the things that nobody can see coming."

That concern may have some validity. Ron Bialek, president of the Public Health Foundation, estimates that this country needs more than $10 billion in new investments to improve a public health system that will surely face a new, unexpected virus outbreak.

We don't have a color code for the threat of emerging diseases to this country, but perhaps we should. And there's no question that the threat level is now elevated.

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Lou Dobbs is the anchor and managing editor of CNN's "Lou Dobbs Moneyline." Comment by clicking here.

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