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Home » News & Events » 03-23-05

Everyday Health Issues Need More Concern

Galveston County Daily News (Internet/Print) March 23, 2005

By Stanley Lemon

Anthrax was in the news again last week with false alarms at federal facilities around Washington, D.C. Almost simultaneously, the Department of Homeland Security offered its death and damage estimates for potential terrorist attacks. Scenarios included biological attacks with infectious agents like plague and foot-and-mouth disease.

Yet, only the week before, more than 700 scientists, including many of the nation's best, signed an "open letter" in Science magazine to Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) decrying the "diversion" of research funds from everyday infectious disease problems of high public health importance to "projects of high biodefense but low public health importance."

Where is the truth in all this?

We do need to commit more resources to "everyday" public health problems, including the growing resistance of disease-causing bacteria to our most potent antibiotics, the looming threat of an influenza pandemic, the worldwide spread of AIDS, or the advancing front of hepatitis C.

Still, while well-intended, the letter is mistaken in suggesting that research resources have been diverted from these important problems to bio-defense projects and that bio-defense projects aren't important to public health.

This year, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID, that part of the NIH responsible for both infectious disease and bio-defense research) expects to expend some $1.62 billion on non-bio-defense research project grants, up from $1.56 billion last year and $1.48 billion the year before.

Clearly, these funds have not been "diverted" to other purposes - although the increases have not been as large as many of us would like.

During the same three-year period, bio-defense-related research project grants at the NIAID have grown from $205 million to $484 million due to the appropriation of new monies to the NIH by a Congress that recognized the threat of bio-terrorism.

Congress also appropriated new funds to enhance the nation's laboratory capabilities, including the $110 million awarded to University of Texas Medical Branch for the Galveston National Laboratory (GNL). The GNL, when complete in 2008, will allow our scientists to safely work on vaccines and therapeutics for a wide range of life-threatening infections, including many that represent both natural and bio-terrorist threats.

So, are bio-defense research projects of "low public-health significance"? The answer is a resounding "no."

Even if no one ever again drops anthrax spores into the mail or attempts one of many other possible bio-terrorist scenarios, bio-defense research and bio-defense preparedness will sharpen our ability to design more effective vaccines, make better anti-infective drugs, and to respond more rapidly to outbreaks.

In short, such research makes us better prepared to manage new infectious disease threats that, like SARS or West Nile virus, are virtually certain to surprise us in the future.

This should not be an "either/or" debate. We need funding to fight both the bacteria and viruses that sicken and kill Americans right now and those that will confront us in the future either because of malevolent intent or because of natural events leading to disease emergence.

What we learn about controlling the bacteria and viruses we confront in our everyday lives helps us to develop countermeasures for bio-terrorism. And what we learn about combating the microbes that bio-terrorists could deploy against us will help us battle common everyday bacterial and viral diseases.

Dr. Stanley M. Lemon is director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at UTMB. He also is principal investigator for the Galveston National Laboratory.

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