Saw The Movie? Now Fund The Scientists

When the American public spends in one weekend twice as much on a movie about an exotic lethal virus as it allocates all year to real-life outbreak-fighting public-health scientists, something is out of whack. The take-home lesson from the best-seller The Hot Zone and the movie Outbreak is that, biologically speaking, we live in one small world. Dangerous infectious agents such as Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa are never more than a plane ride away from American soil. HIV was once an undiscovered African virus.

From at least Adam Smith on, economists have agreed that at the heart of any government's duties are defense, public safety, and public health. Yet scientists at the Special Pathogens Branch of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention are exhausted from fighting outbreaks, including Ebola in Zaire this year, without enough money or manpower.

This condition is potentially disastrous. The work of these scientists and other public-health officials on the front line of preventable diseases is an insurance policy that a sophisticated nation can't afford to let lapse. Neither industry, nor academia, nor the military, nor any other international group can match the CDC's talent and experience. "It's not only a U.S. agency. It's a world agency," says Bernard Le Guenno, a virologist at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. The CDC has estimated it needs an additional $125 million a year to cope with the threat of emerging infections. This year, it got a further $6 million toward that goal. In the new budget bill under review in the House, the CDC would get a $39 million increase in its current $2.085 billion budget, but none of that raise would go toward fighting deadly infections.

Outbreak is fiction. Controlling and studying an outbreak today in a Bolivian jungle that could claim lives tomorrow in Anytown, U.S.A., is reality.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.