It’s tax day in the USA today.  The White House has a nifty tax receipt which you can use to see precisely how your federal tax dollars are being spent. If you are married with with two children and an income of $80,000/year you are paying about $4,500 in income tax. Of that, about 24% goes to national defense.

About 0.8% goes to international development, humanitarian assistance and global health.

There are innumerable ways to demonstrate the value and utility to American interests of that modest contribution to the softer side of foreign policy. One very glaring example in the news today is the World Health Organization’s warnings about a new bird flu virus that has killed nearly a dozen people in China over the past month. To date, the new H7N9 virus has infected 51 people and killed 11. Over one in five people who was infected is now dead.

The average flu is highly transmittable person-to-person. It spreads like the flu! The thing is, it only kills a relatively small percentage of people who are infected. Those killed tend to be people with already compromised immune systems, like children or the elderly.

So far H7N9 has not not been transmitted person-to-person. All the people infected have been infected through contact with birds. But if a virus like H7N9 mutates or somehow makes the leap to become highly transmittable from person-to-person, that’s the nightmare scenario. Just imagine a world in which one out of every 5 people who gets the flu, dies from the flu.  Books like The Stand or films like Contagion may no longer seem to be farfetched science fiction.

The USA contributes about $370 million a year to the WHO. Part of this funding goes to activities like monitoring bird flu outbreaks like the one ongoing in China, and helping countries with weak health care systems contain outbreaks before they reach American shores. That all costs the US taxpayer  a fraction of a penny for every dollar of her tax return. I’d say preventing the apocalypse is a pretty good return on her investment.

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