War on flu gives better security than war on terror

A LITTLE under 28 years ago, I copped a heavy dose of flu – real flu, not just a bad cold. Bone aches, fever, headache as well as the usual nasal congestion. I have not had another dose until earlier this week. I know it was 28 years ago because I looked up an article I wrote after crawling out of my bed. It was headed: Imagine having the flu all of your life.

The theme was that many people in Africa constantly suffered from one or more of the big six diseases: malaria, leprosy, bilharzia, filariasis (river blindness), leishmaniasis, and trypanosomiasis (sleep¬ing sickness). Many had no drugs to cure or alleviate symptoms. They were living in a worse state than people with flu with a much higher mortality rate.

I made various comparisons between bits of military spending against World Health Organisation estimates of the cost of the cost of bringing under control, or eradicating, these diseases.

WHO’s credibility is high. It wiped out smallpox for a trivial $90 million – perhaps $1 billion in today’s money.

Alas, in the past three decades the incidence and number of deaths from the diseases overall are up. The big two are malaria with about 400 million cases a year, and four million deaths, and bilharzias which infects about 300 million people a year, mainly in Africa. Bilharzia is a worm infection that recycles indefinitely without drug treatment. It causes a chronic fatigue – like having flu all the time, but is not often fatal.

After the 1982 article, I came across the then mild-mannered Graeme Laver at the John Curtin School of Medical Research. I wrote about his research for a better flu vaccine. Incidentally, I have to plead guilty to converting him into what is known in our game as a “media tart”. He came to realise that research money, unfortunately, follows publicity and that if he were to get the money for his research he would have to make more public songs and dances.

He pointed out that the flu virus was one of the greatest medical threats to the developed world. It kept mutating, rending last year’s vaccine largely ineffective. The greater the mutation in a given year, the less effective the vaccine, even if you have the jab each year.

It remains the case that a flu jab cannot give a patient the same level of protection as any of those vaccines of the 1950s against polio, mumps, rubella, diphtheria and tetanus and the like. Those diseases now pose virtually no threat, provided anti-vaccination hysteria does not take hold.

Laver died before he could see his dream of a fully effective one-off flu vaccine.

He was right, though, about the threat to medical security – not only medical but security in general.

We spend far too much on the military side of security. Indeed, military spending is now at $1500 billion a year (in 2005 dollars), the highest it has ever been. It fell at the end of the cold war, but a decade later began steadily to rise again.

The US spends about 42 per cent of that, and China a distant second on 6 per cent.

True, we spend more on health than the military – about two and a half times. But that ratio is not satisfactory. We should be spending 10 times more. More on health and less on military. As it happens the US spends about the same proportion of the world’s health spending as it does the world’s military spending. Even within the world health spend we are spending too much on hi-tech cure attempts and over-treatment and not enough on prevention.

The real question is how effective is the spending?

Fifteen months into Barrack Obama’s presidency it seems little will change on the military side, despite the promise.

The American people seemed convinced that any restraint on military spending will threaten America; that military foreign aid helps US security; and that civilian foreign aid is a waste of money. And that government spending on health will erode American liberty. But the reverse is true in each case.

The massive military budgets threaten US financial stability. US public debt is unsustainable, but the obvious solution – slashes to military spending – is avoid. The US could halve is military spending and still be spending three times its nearest rival – China. What paranoia demands military spending six times higher than its nearest rival? That “security” could not be achieved more cheaply reveals incompetence and waste.

Of course, the big forces and big weapons so essential in trans-national wars are less relevant now. The big toys are useless against a home-made bombs in undeclared wars at home or abroad – wars where the enemy is unidentified. It’s like expecting body armour to protect you against the flu or other virus or bacteria.

It would cost so little to improve or save the lives of so many if the US (and Australia) diverted money from big military toys and foreign intervention to preventative health – at home and abroad. We would become more secure. The US and Australian presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and the US military aid to Israel and the Arab dictatorships makes us less secure, not more secure.

It stirs hatred against us and makes us a target.

It should not take much to make a huge difference because the US military is so huge. To give you an idea how huge US military spending is about the same as two-thirds Australia’s total GDP. It is bizarre overkill and patently ineffective.

The US military spends 120 times the money spent each year by the World Health Organisation. It is an evil misappropriation of resources. A slight reallocation could eradicate malaria saving 300 million people from suffering. It could probably provide a one-off effective flu vaccine or even an AIDS vaccine.

I suppose being confined to bed makes you appreciate the value of good health and resent unnecessary military spending.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 1 May 2010.

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