The war on terror contributed to the lack of preparedness for Hurricane Katrina and the destruction and death still unfolding in its wake by gobbling up more than its fair share of government resources, according to a US physician. It is also to blame for thousands of preventable deaths from common illnesses every day, she asserts.
In an article published in the British Medical Journal on Friday, Erica Frank at Emory University Medical School in Atlanta, Georgia points out that the 7000 troops from Louisiana and Mississippi currently stationed in Iraq meant there were not enough on US soil to help with the rescue effort.
She also blames a diversion of funds towards the war and homeland security for the unfinished, sinking levees that broke during the hurricane, that might otherwise have done a better job at protecting New Orleans from flooding.
“Our government is spending a whole lot of time and financial resources on a war,” she says. “It clearly comes at a cost to public health.”
Although Frank admits that there is not necessarily a causal link between inflated spending on the Iraq war and bioterror defence, and a simultaneous deficit in spending on levees in Louisiana, others agree that with so much money and resources on foreign soil, there is bound to be a negative effect back home.
“It is pretty clear that if you had National Guardsmen that weren’t in Iraq, there would have been more on the spot in New Orleans,” says Leif Haase of the Century Foundation, a healthcare think tank in New York City, US.
Frank says the war on terror is also likely to be to blame for thousands of unnecessary deaths from preventable diseases each day.
She has calculated that on September 11 2001, although 3400 people died as a result of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, another 6620 Americans died as a result of common diseases such as cancer, stroke and heart disease or risky behaviours such as smoking, diet, alcohol and use of fire arms and drugs, over half of which are preventable.
“Funds being taken away from public health efforts and re-directed to the war on terror is going to result in thousands if not millions of American deaths,” she says. “We haven’t cleared the war on tobacco yet.”
And although plans to vaccinate widely against smallpox in 2002 that would have cost billions of dollars were thwarted, “preparedness for bioterrorism still seems magnified well beyond its proportional risk”, writes Frank.
She describes how in 2002, New York Governor George Pataki awarded $1.3 million to reduce heart disease, responsible for one-third of New York’s fatalities, while the US Department of Health spent $34 million for bioterrorism preparedness in the state.
Congressional auditors also found in 2005 that FBI funds for investigating fraud in health care seemed to have been shifted to fighting terrorism over the past three years.
These sentiments were first brought to attention in March 2005 when 750 micro-biologists wrote an open letter to the head of the US National Institutes of Health.
They argued that research likely to lead to advances in genetics and public health was suffering as a result of a massive increase in funding for bioterror agents such Ebola and anthrax.
“The whole bio-defence effort has had a disastrous effect on public health,” agrees David Ozonoff, an environmental health researcher at Boston University in Massachusetts, US. “It is seriously crippling wholesale, routine, bread-and-butter health activities.”
But not everyone agrees. “The fact is we were radically underspending on biodefence before 2001,” says Haase. “To even get to a threshold of preparedness, you have to overspend.”
Journal reference: British Medical Journal (vol 331, p 526)
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