Last week the World Health Organization took the rare step of classifying the Ebola outbreak in Congo as a “public health emergency of international concern.” It was meant to wake the world up to prepare and mobilize to stop the spread of this deadly disease. The good news is there’s a better way forward.
The bad news is diseases like this are the true enemy of all mankind, have killed more people than all the wars in history—and they’re advancing.
The current Ebola outbreak is now the world’s second largest ever for Ebola — yet this version currently carries a 50% greater fatality rate than 2014’s deadly outbreak of Ebola. It’s already jumped a border — what if Ebola crosses the ocean, again? And right here at home, measles, a disease America declared “eliminated” back in 2000, has spread rapidly across the country. What if measles is only the first comeback in a number of supposedly defeated germs, like whooping cough, diphtheria, and polio?
Either from nature, or cooked up in a lab (like the 2001 Anthrax attacks), germs are humanity’s deadliest adversary. That includes terrible events like the Great Influenza of a century ago that killed 50 to 100 million people. And this scary history’s potential magnitude should get us to think militarily, and act medically. Think beyond a single patient. Think expeditionary, think attack and defend, to halt this enemy’s ability to cause casualties on the scale of a fighting foe.
The first military planning principle to apply when fighting this enemy of all mankind is unity of command. We’re disaggregated and divided—the enemy doesn’t need to divide us to conquer, because we’ve done it ourselves. The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Bio-Defense, headed by former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman and former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, found in 2015 that the U.S. has no centralized biodefense leadership. We have to see public health on the same level as a matter of national security, and that matter should be medical-led and military-supported.
We already have a ready-made cadre of supportive professionals. The U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps is a little-known federal organization (under Health and Human Services) with the mission to “protect, promote, and advance the health and safety of the nation.” Its roughly 6,500 members wear uniforms similar to the U.S. Navy but are essentially civilian (mostly medical) professionals dedicated to public health. Right now, they’re too small and thinly spread to make a concentrated impact for large-scale emergency medical care or infectious disease response. The federal government should expand the USPHS ranks and invest the Department of Health and Human Services with leadership authority now, because it’s too late to build a force after the enemy’s already attacked ashore.
Which leads to a second principle: Develop a defense in depth with multiple layers of protection. We showed what was possible in 2014, when civilian medical expertise was supported by a U.S. Army troop surge, and together they helped defeat Ebola in West Africa. But future surges would be unnecessary with smaller, proactive operations around the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an exceptional early warning system, and when it’s triggered, the U.S. would then deploy medical expertise with military support, smart enough to save lives and recon the threat—yet strong enough to stand and defend itself This would allow us to identify, isolate, and eradicate outbreaks before they explode into full-blown epidemics.
Third, strategic communications matter. Disease spreads socially as much as biologically. And right now, we’re losing the war of ideas. In an era of “truth decay,” when those who peddle deadly fictions are sometimes as glamorous as they are persuasive — we’ve got to stand with facts and science or we may fall to lies and fantasies. That’s why public education is the first step to public health. Just like in World War II, when Hollywood was enlisted to remind us “Why We Fight” — today’s health education must reach citizens to remind them that unnecessarily refusing vaccinations gives aid and comfort to the enemy.
And that enemy is defeating us by division and doubt. The least we can do to honor the victims of humanity’s oldest enemy is to take action in ways earlier generations couldn’t, to limit these tragedies.
Max Brooks is the author of “Germ Warfare: A Graphic History” and “World War Z.” He and Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh are non-resident fellows with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and co-edited, with others, Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict.