Email to a friend
Bird flu poses threat to
international security, U. of I. scholar says
Mitchell, News Editor
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
Palmore, director of the U. of I. Program in Arms
Control, Disarmament and International Security, believes
bird flu may be an even greater threat to international
security than war or terrorism.
— In the past, when government leaders, policymakers and scholars
have turned their attention to peace and security issues, the talk invariably
has focused on war, arms control or anti-terrorism strategies. But Julian
Palmore believes it’s time to expand the scope of the conversation.
“One thing that is not talked about enough is infectious diseases,”
said Palmore, a mathematics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the
director of the university’s Program
in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security. “Of
course, the spread of AIDS has been and continues to be a major concern
worldwide,” he said, “but an even greater threat, with regard
to international security, may well be avian influenza,” or bird
flu, as it’s commonly called.
And while biologists, epidemiologists and other scientists are engaged
in efforts to better understand how the disease is contracted and spread
in animals and in humans, Palmore said world leaders and policymakers
need to seriously consider the potential international security implications
that would result from an avian influenza pandemic.
“Natural disasters, especially pandemics, can and do affect international
security in many ways,” the U. of I. professor wrote in an article
titled “Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza: A Clear and Present
Danger to International Security,” scheduled for publication in
an upcoming issue of the journal Defense & Security Analysis. “They
can have disastrous effects on countries’ economies, infrastructures,
populations, public health and stability. As a consequence of natural
disasters, governments may fail and populations may be decimated.
“Thus,” Palmore writes, “planning for international
security needs must take into account the effects of natural disasters.
“Since avian influenza is of utmost concern in Asia and in many
other parts of the world, it is imperative that states’ governments
and nongovernmental organizations pay attention to the evolution of
the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N1 virus.”
Palmore, who also addresses this topic in a brief critical commentary
in the March issue of Defense and Security Analysis, said avian flu
poses a potential threat to human security on two fronts.
Because the virus attacks poultry, in effect, it attacks economies by
wiping out the foodstocks of affected nations. Both the poultry and
tourism industries in China and other Southeast Asian countries where
the virus has been detected already have been disrupted by outbreaks
of bird flu.
And in today’s global marketplace, such disruptions could have
long-lasting consequences, as economic ripple effects could impact other
countries as well.
To date, only 80 deaths have been attributed to avian flu worldwide
by the World Health Organization, and those deaths have resulted from
human contact with infected birds. But, Palmore said, the greatest looming
threat to international security is a scenario in which the virus mutates
in an abrupt manner, resulting in human-to-human transmission.
If that occurred, he said, the number of human deaths tallied would
likely be “on a wider scale than any attack by humans on humans
other than nuclear war.”
“People think of international security as things people do or
don’t do,” Palmore said. But, he noted, the consequences
of infectious-disease outbreaks and natural disasters can be equally
“We’ve recently witnessed the effects of just one tidal
wave … one hurricane. And as devastating as those occurrences
have been, they are not ongoing events over an 18-month period.”
While theories on how the avian flu is transmitted and spread among
poultry and other fowl remain inconclusive, Palmore said scientists
suspect that migratory birds play a major role.
Ducks, geese and other waterfowl – including those migrating from
Asia to Europe and others using flyways that take them from Asia to
the United States through Alaska and Canada – “pose a significant
delivery system for avian influenza as they infect domestic birds, then
animals by droppings laden with viruses,” he said.
So, what can the world’s populations do to arm themselves against
such a potentially destructive, yet virtually invisible, enemy?
“We cannot stop or divert this delivery system,” he said.
“What we can do is detect and prevent transmission from domesticated
animals to humans as animal infections become apparent through intensive
Such efforts already are under way in various locations, Palmore said,
including in the United States where volunteers from wildlife organizations
are monitoring local bird populations for disease.
But government officials need to step up their efforts as well, he said
– even if that means shifting national-security priorities somewhat.
“The international community is right to recognize the threat
posed by international terrorism, but not at the expense of threats
such as avian influenza,” Palmore said. “For this reason
the threat to human life – worldwide – must be prioritized
and resources allocated accordingly.
“By strengthening the surveillance and detection of avian influenza
the public health organizations will provide an early warning to the
onset of an avian influenza epidemic. In turn this warning may provide
the opportunity to limit the spread of a virus that has mutated into
a form that allows efficient human to human transmission, thereby thwarting
Palmore plans travel to the United Kingdom in March to participate in
a conference on international collaboration on planning for pandemics
at Wilton Park, Steyning, West Sussex.