A deadly disease outbreak like a flu epidemic is one of the worst civil emergencies the country could face and Britain must help developing countries to stop new outbreaks, the Government has said.
A flu epidemic in the UK could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths and cost tens of billions of pounds, while disease outbreaks overseas can spread insecurity, harm trade and increase migration, according to the Government’s first biological security strategy.
Global migration towards mega cities, international travel and the growing demand for meat in much of the world all make it easier for new diseases to spread worldwide.
The spread of biological knowledge and techniques online also means a growing potential for terrorists to try to carry out a biological attack.
At the same time the growth of microbe resistance to antibiotics could kill ten million a year more each year around the world.
Disease outbreaks that begin overseas, as seen with the Ebola epidemic, can quickly affect the UK and UK interestsHome Office document
“Significant outbreaks of disease are among the highest impact risks faced by any society,” said Ben Wallace, the security minister, “threatening lives and causing disruption to public services and the economy.”
The 46-page Home Office document says Britain cannot sit behind its borders to secure itself against biological threats.
“These diseases are not limited by international borders. Disease outbreaks that begin overseas, as seen with the Ebola epidemic, can quickly affect the UK and UK interests.
“This impact can be either direct, or indirect through the loss of regional stability negatively affecting trade, causing migration pressures and creating ungoverned spaces in which terrorism and criminality can flourish.”
The plan says UK aid that builds up health services in the world’s poorest countries goes “to protecting UK citizens from significant disease threats and securing the UK’s long term national security.”
Any new deadly epidemic is likely to come from an animal disease infecting humans. Around 60 per cent of all human diseases and three quarters of all new and emerging infectious diseases are these zoonotic diseases. Recent examples include Ebola and H5N1 bird flu.
As growing populations encroach on natural habitats and developing countries demand more animal foods, there will be increasing overlap between humans, domestic livestock and wildlife that could see new diseases jump from one group to another.
An outbreak infecting UK livestock of crops could also be highly costly and damaging, the strategy says.
The strategy says that a deliberate biological attack on the UK is currently judged unlikely. But it says such an attack on the UK or its armed forces “are aspects of this risk picture that may become more likely over the longer term”.
Conflicts or economic crises also risk increasing the threat from diseases as health services collapse and immunisation programmes halt for diseases such as polio, diptheria and measles
In the long term, “climate change will also increase the likelihood of pests and vector-borne diseases spreading to new areas of the globe, as they and their carriers are able to survive in countries where environments would previously not have supported their circulation”.
Mr Wallace said: “Britain is a global nation, open to the world and outward facing. This means we are exposed to these risks, both at home and overseas, but it also gives us the opportunity to work with international partners to tackle such threats at source.”
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