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Public Health News Watch Wednesday: Report for March 22, 2017

This week’s Public Health News Watch focuses on recent claims in the media that the budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration will have a negative impact on healthcare outcomes and patient safety.

Make America sick again?

No, this was not the campaign slogan President Donald Trump ran on in 2016, but some experts are arguing that his efforts to put America “first” and “drain the swamp” in Washington, DC, may put more Americans in danger of getting sick from a deadly virus, such as Ebola, Dengue, or Zika, than ever before. At least that is the underlying message of a commentary published March 17, 2017 in The New York Times. The piece was penned by the paper’s award-winning healthcare and infectious disease reporter, Donald. G. McNeil, Jr.

Under the headline “Trump Plan Eliminates a Global Sentinel Against Disease, Experts Warn,” McNeil states that “[n]obody in the United States has ever died from an intercontinental missile strike… [while] over the past 50 years, nearly 2 million Americans have died from intercontinental virus strikes.” McNeil notes that the figure includes the nearly 2,000 who have died as a result of contracting West Nile virus, nearly 700,000 fatalities attributed to HIV/AIDS, and 1.2 million deaths linked to influenza since 1967.

In lieu of being accused of reporting “alternative facts,” we checked the Times reporter’s data and found that it is correct that deaths caused by viruses are likely to increase in the future. Only time will tell, though, if the new administration’s proposed budget—yet, to be approved—will have a negative impact on healthcare outcomes that so many are reporting.

An earlier Times analysis reported that the proposed cuts would trim the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by 18% (or $5.8 billion). McNeil notes that the budget would also eliminate the Bethesda, MD-based Fogarty Center, an agency that trains foreign clinicians to, among other things, manage infectious disease outbreaks. The Times reports that closing the Fogarty Center would save $69 million. Meanwhile, NPR reported on March 16, 2017 that the president’s proposed budget also includes “funding reform” for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Overall, according to The Washington Post, the president hopes to cut US foreign aid—which includes healthcare programs—by $28 billion.

As we noted last week, the president wants to streamline the drug approval process in the United States in order to get novel treatments to patients who need them. However, some experts argue that in making his budget decisions, he is effectively cutting off funding for the very research that spurs the development of these new products.

Finally, political science professor Amy S. Patterson wrote in a recent op-ed in The Post, the reported “budgetary short-changing” proposed by the Trump administration is, at best, short-sighted. She states, “[F]oreign aid, according to many US policymakers and military leaders, increases soft power, or the global influence the United States has because it supports basic human rights and humanitarian causes… Public health experts say that cuts to US global health funding—which makes up less than 1% of the federal budget—threaten the health of US citizens, since pathogens such as Zika, influenza and Ebola can cross borders. For other policymakers and advocates, it is morally unjustifiable to cut health programs that save millions of lives.”

In other words, what makes financial sense (at least to the new administration) may be hazardous to Americans’ health, according to some experts.

Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.