WASHINGTON– The Defense Department’s increasing role in global health is essential in improving security in troubled nations and minimizing conflict in others, the Pentagon’s top medical official said yesterday.

“Just as good health is an integral part of a person’s well-being, a good health sector is vital to a nation’s,” Dr. S. Ward Casscells, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said to an audience at the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

Department studies show that diverse and opposing cultural backgrounds and poor human development are key contributors to social unrest, violent conflicts and state failure, Casscells told the group, explaining the Defense Department’s global health role.

Poverty, natural disasters, violence, destruction of infrastructure and conflict are fundamental causes of civil strife, poor health and lack of vital services, he said. That can lead to restricted water, food, sanitation and health care access, all of which promote disease, he said.

Therefore, Cascells, said, the military’s role is much more sophisticated than security and war, just as global health is much more sophisticated than medicine alone.

When health in a region is poor, “it doesn’t mean that you go in and vaccinate people,” he said. “You obviously have to go in and try to get the electricity up, the clean water running, the sewage working, the roads. You have to have stability. You have to protect people’s lives.”

Casscells, an Army Reserve colonel, said he saw all of the previously described scenarios during his tour in Iraq in 2006. He also has first-hand experience with humanitarian relief efforts, having assisted the Gulf Coast region in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“The long-term outcome of humanitarian activity produces a safer, more secure world,” he said. “Security, stability, transition and reconstruction operations [are] intended to enhance infrastructure and improve practices where they didn’t exist before. The idea is that by enhancing stability, we will reduce conflict.

“The building part of a soldier’s profession is far more important than the breaking part,” he continued.

Kathleen Hicks, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies international security program, said global health and national security are inexorably tied together. Global health initiatives help with overseas populations and can affect nearly every aspect of American safety and prosperity from the stability of foreign governments and populations to the physical well-being of U.S. citizens.

“The United States must have a strategy for global health that’s nesting with security elements,” Hicks said.

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