America's health aid saves others, helps us

Americans may believe that federal spending on foreign aid is exorbitant, but global health programs are only one quarter of 1 percent of the budget, and they protect our own health by shoring up that of our neighbors. Further, these dollars by necessity must support the most efficient, low-technology approaches to help resource-poor areas.

Even conservative legislators agree that cutting this spending will do nothing to improve the economic crisis. Stripping life-saving prevention and medicine from children and permitting deadly diseases to spread from our neighbors to America is a sure path to failure. Talk about cutting off one's nose to save one's face.

And yet, this is precisely what the new U.S. House of Representatives has done, slashing funding for global health programs in its proposed 2011 federal budget. If enacted, the House's budget will be disastrous in the long run.

To put this in perspective, AIDS and tuberculosis claim a combined 3.7 million lives every year. With more than 2.2 million people living with HIV and a quarter-million with TB in Latin America and the Caribbean, both conditions are highly spreadable and "right next door" to our gulf states — or any state with an international airport.

In fact, Florida has one of the highest rates of tuberculosis in the United States, and cases of drug-resistant TB have been reported. Multi-drug resistant TB is deadly, and costs $100,000 to $300,000 to treat one patient. Recently, the New England Journal of Medicine found that the United States would actually see a net savings of $20 million in domestic health costs, and almost 600 fewer tuberculosis cases, if it provided just $9.4 million in assistance to Haiti and the Dominican Republic for tuberculosis treatment. If the House has its way, our successes in the Caribbean and Latin America against TB and AIDS, as well as all of the money we have invested to date, will have been wasted.

Keep in mind, too, that global health includes international disaster assistance, which prevents disease outbreaks after natural disasters — such as the cholera epidemic in Haiti, cases of which we've seen in Florida.

And how about a nice case of dengue hemorrhagic fever? Our tropical U.S. territory, Puerto Rico, has been experiencing an outbreak, and of course, so are our non-U.S. neighbors in the Caribbean.

Think it can't spread stateside? Think again. Climate change is giving malaria and dengue comfortable havens in areas they've never been recorded before. CDC just tested Key West residents and found that a surprising 15 percent have antibodies to dengue virus — without ever leaving the mainland.

It's been almost a century since we've had dengue virus circulating in the United States. But the mosquitoes that carry dengue (and malaria) have lived here since before the Spanish landed, and they don't mind a little extra baggage when crossing borders. Those cheap, easy-to-use mosquito nets that our global health programs would help fund to prevent the spread of deadly diseases like these? Yep. Your new House thinks this stuff is wasteful.

By the way, this is not a partisan agenda item. This is President George W. Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which has provided medicine to 1.6 million HIV-positive mothers to help prevent HIV transmission to their babies, and has identified and treated over 7.7 million cases of TB. This is a point of patriotic pride, progress and success that the GOP could be shouting from the rooftops rather than setting out on the curb for pickup.

The Senate is negotiating with the House over the 2011 budget. We urgently need Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio to step up and help preserve full funding for these cost-effective programs that very directly protect our borders and promote increasingly necessary goodwill toward America among our most loyal allies and neighbors.

Our world is shrinking daily, climate change is here whether we choose to believe or not, and events every week show us just how much humanity is vulnerable and needs to pull together. Global health programs are an inexpensive investment in American biosecurity. Even taking the most selfish view possible, our national security and American lives depend on how well we act as our brother's keeper.

Dr. Sandra Gonzalez Gompf is an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor of infections diseases and internal medicine at the University of South Florida College of Medicine.

America's health aid saves others, helps us 03/20/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 10:12am]

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