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Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman
Department of State Counselor
Remarks Before the Open Forum on Emerging Infectious Diseases
Department of State Open Forum
Washington, DC, March 25, 1998

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As prepared for delivery

"Emerging Infectious Diseases Are a National Security Challenge
to the United States"


Good afternoon and welcome to the Open Forum on emerging infectious diseases. I trust that everyone washed their hands before they entered the conference room today. Unfortunately, Iím only half-joking.

Infectious diseases once thought to be controlled are re-emerging worldwide. They endanger the health of Americans and our national security interests. These diseases are the silent enemies of economic growth, national well-being and stability around the globe, as infectious diseases know no borders.

The resurgence of infectious diseases, the threats they pose and the devastation they portend give reason to reexamine how we define "national security." Our responses to these challenges must engage the foreign affairs and national security community along with the health community here and abroad.

How U.S. Is Affected

U.S. national interests are affected in four ways:

  1. it is a challenge to health and economic productivity;
  2. it is a danger to economic development and political stability abroad;
  3. there are potential dangers of bio-terrorism; and
  4. there is the necessity of enhanced preparedness to safeguard the U.S. and the global community again the threat of infectious diseases.

Current Situation

Infectious microbes do not recognize international borders. The modern world is a very small place where any city in the world is only a plane ride away from any other. Infectious microbes can easily travel across borders with their human or animal hosts, in the food and products we trade. No nation is impervious to these health threats. Beyond the terrible AIDS pandemic and the more exotic, publicized diseases such as the Ebola virus in the former Zaire, lie a wide range of microbiological threats. These threats, some of which you will hear about today, include TB, malaria, cholera, and hepatitis.

Growing global population, changes in climate, massive demographic shifts, poverty, greater population mobility and other imbalances between people and nature contribute to the upsurge of infectious diseases. Industrialization and even health technologies such as antibiotics have had unintended consequences, including the development of antibiotic resistance.

Human suffering and economic burdens worldwide are more severe, resulting in significant losses in productivity and economic growth, and gross distortions in the workforce and population of other nations. For example, the World Health Organization estimated that nearly 30 million people will have been infected by HIV/AIDS by the year 2000. This will have a severe demographic impact, especially in Central Africa, but statistics show this problem is on the rise in Asia and other regions as well.

We have practical as well as humanitarian reasons for broader international action against infectious diseases.

New and re-emergent strains may vitiate past successes. As a 1995 report by the National Science and Technology Councilís Committee on International Science, Engineering and Technology (CISET) points out, the annual aggregate cost to the nation for infectious diseases exceeds an estimated $120 billion.

American and other investors find it difficult to carry on business in nations beset by infectious diseases or to locate plants and send employees to areas posing great health risks. Trade and travel can be negatively affected as can the ability of a nation to muster troops to keep peacekeeping commitments.

Role of State Department in Protecting U.S. Citizens From Infectious Diseases

The Department of State has been directed by the President to develop and coordinate a sustained effort to enlist support from other nations and international bodies, to raise the issue of emerging infectious diseases in bilateral, regional and multilateral discussion and to negotiate cooperative agreements with other nations to promote the establishment of a global surveillance response network.

Need to Intensify International Effort

Just as the U.S. cannot protect itself through isolation, it cannot cure the problems of infectious diseases on its own. We must strengthen the efforts of the World Health Organization, the World Bank and other international bodies to address these problems.

At the same time, we must intensify our current international effort. We must broaden the way that we as foreign affairs representatives look at these issues.

We can no longer address infectious disease issues as the subject of foreign assistance alone but must instead look at them as issues on the foreign policy agenda. Our chiefs of mission at embassies and consulates as well as our policymakers here at headquarters must take these issues to the heart of their discussions with national leaders at the highest levels.

At the present, infectious disease issues are part of the Presidentís agenda as he continues his African trip. Infectious diseases, however, know no borders and are problems for Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America as well. Accordingly, it is an issue on the Presidentís agenda for all regions and for the Economic Summit with the major industrialized nations (G-8). It must be on ours.


The choice is clear: we can continue to react to the spread of infectious diseases by costly and imperfect ad hoc crisis measures that do little to solve the essential problems, or we can combine our talent and resources for strengthened awareness, prevention, surveillance and treatment. From a national security perspective, the latter seems infinitely preferable.

[End of Document]

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