from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

How the U.S. Military Can Battle Zika

July 28, 2016

Blog Post

More on:

Military Operations

Defense and Security


Gabriella Meltzer is a research associate in the Global Health program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Aaron Picozzi is the research associate for the military fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Coast Guard veteran, and currently serves in the Army National Guard.

Two years ago, Americans braced for the imminent arrival of Ebola. The virus was spreading rapidly in West Africa, and ended up infecting 29,000 people and killing 11,000 more in the region. Knowing that it could not be contained by underdeveloped and overwhelmed health systems in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, the U.S. military took swift action to mitigate its impact in West Africa and prevent the disease from crossing the Atlantic. Ultimately, only four cases occurred in the United States, resulting in just one fatality.

Today we face a new, more complicated public health menace—Zika, a mosquito-borne disease whose outbreak across Latin America has resulted in women giving birth to children with microcephaly and other debilitating neurological disorders. Strategies that focused on behavioral changes were effective in containing Ebola as transmission only occurs through contact with infected people or objects, but they cannot contain Zika, as individual mosquitos’ movement and feeding patterns cannot be closely monitored or controlled. Ebola infections are also much easier to spot—characteristic symptoms present themselves two to twenty-one days post-infection and there are at least seven WHO-approved, reliable diagnostic tests. With Zika, an estimated 80 percent of those infected remain asymptomatic, and rapid, definitive, and affordable diagnostics still remain in development.

Airport screening tactics used to protect Americans from Ebola, which screened 94 percent of all travelers coming from areas of high infection, cannot be applied to Zika. West African migrants are unable to travel the 4,000 miles across the Atlantic to reach U.S. shores—but Caribbean and Latin American migrants can, and regularly do. As economic conditions in Latin American countries like Venezuela and Brazil worsen, the threat of Zika provides another push for those already looking to make a new life in the United States. The U.S. Coast Guard indicts thousands of these migrants annually, from Southern California to as far east as the Atlantic coast of Florida. There is no need to pass through an airport—any shoreline is a landing point, making universal screening nearly impossible.

The confluence of these factors highlights the necessity for a solution at Zika’s source rather than America’s entry points. However, WHO-member nations have displayed lackluster financial commitment to the fight against Zika. Even if the necessary funds were raised, their dispersal to local public health agencies is a long, arduous process, and vaccine development and approval can take upwards of eighteen months.

Instead, there is another actor with resources at its disposal and capable of providing immediate results in this time of urgency—the U.S. military. Rapidly mobilizing the military to conduct advisory missions, strengthening and developing response systems, in areas of high infection would produce a lasting framework tailored not just towards Zika, but a myriad of potential problems. Brazil has turned to its military for domestic response, not because of an inherent skill in mosquito eradication, but because this rapidly deployable, incredibly flexible workforce could be deputized to combat specific problems. The U.S. military has the same ability. Whether responding to the Japanese earthquake of 2011 or the 2014 Ebola crisis, the U.S. military is very effective in aiding local governments while leaving behind a framework to address future disasters. Of course, any U.S. military presence should be tailored to meet local needs, but by focusing on training foreign militaries and other agencies in disaster management, the United States would be making a long term investment in regional stability, as well as U.S. national security.

This is evidenced by the Obama administration’s recently introduced Global Health Security Agenda, which highlights the importance of cooperative prevention, detection, and response to infectious disease agents. To realize this agenda, vulnerable nations like Brazil and Venezuela need support to develop the necessary capacities and framework to ensure global stability.

In an age of globalization and unpredictability, prevention is preferable to reaction. With trained forces located throughout the western hemisphere, the United States will effectively create a sphere of management and mitigation in its backyard. Be it a health emergency like Zika or Ebola, or a natural disaster such as an earthquake or tsunami, the ability to mobilize a trainable force to respond quickly is crucial. Many of the countries in the heart of the Zika epidemic have weak response systems, governments, and economies. Training and strengthening of response efforts in these countries will help to reassure citizens of stability in times of crisis. This is a long term byproduct of training operations, one that reduces the need for reactive action in the future.

With U.S.-led multinational training and partnership, the current hollow framework in place for disaster response and prevention can be strengthened while simultaneously taking steps to counter Zika. Regional problems are quickly becoming international in the age of globalization, and it is often only a matter of time before issues spurred elsewhere arrive on American shores. By training and empowering foreign nations, the United States will feel the beneficial, long-term effects in not only regional, but global stability.