The World Is ‘Grossly Unprepared’ for Infectious Disease Outbreaks

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While the planet did learn from the Ebola outbreak of a few years ago, and while some progress has been made in terms of disease readiness, humanity remains extremely vulnerable to the next inevitable outbreak, an international team of experts warn in The BMJ.

Credit: Global Panorama/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

“Ebola, and more recently Zika and yellow fever, have shown that the global system for preventing, detecting, and responding to disease outbreaks is not yet reliable or robust,” wrote the authors of The BMJ analysis, led by Dr. Suerie Moon of Global Health Centre, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland. “Substantial reforms are already under way and deserve support. But many problems remain, without dedicated political or financial resources.”

Related: Cold Weather May ‘Kickstart’ Flu Epidemics Each Year

The analysis ends by sounding an urgent alarm: “The world will not be ready for the next outbreak without deeper and more comprehensive change.”

The researchers make several recommendations, including:

Better Outbreak Reporting

“A new incentive for early reporting is the World Bank’s Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, created to provide rapid financing for outbreak control and to protect countries from the high economic costs of outbreaks through an insurance mechanism,” the authors note. While Japan and Germany already have pledged enough money to cover startup costs, “Its speed and effectiveness cannot be tested until the next outbreak hits.”

Sharing Research

Due to “the lack of adequate research into the Ebola virus before the 2014 outbreak,” the authors wrote, “the world did not have the proper drugs, vaccines, and rapid diagnostic tests.”

Ebola training response. Credit: Army Medicine/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

After reviewing several other scholarly reports on this issue, the authors of The BMJ analysis said there is academic consensus calling for “developing policies and platforms for exchanging best practices for mobilizing communities and delivering care, for sharing research findings, and for modifying the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) Framework – which governs the sharing of flu virus samples and related benefits – to include other pathogens such as Ebola and to be made legally binding. (Medical researchers) also recommend increasing international public funding for research on pathogens that are likely to cause epidemics (because market incentives do not drive investment for diseases that primarily affect poor countries or occur sporadically).”

Discarding Travel and Trade Restrictions Not Based on Science

“Fueled by intense public concern and media attention, many governments and private companies restricted trade and travel during the Ebola outbreak, though many of these measures were not warranted on scientific or public health grounds,” the experts reported in The BMJ analysis. “These restrictions exacerbated economic repercussions and made it harder for aid organizations to send support to affected regions.”

Related: Birth Year May Determine Your Flu Risk

Our unstable world adds even more urgency for being prepared for disease outbreaks. In a short video on his popular website, Tracking Zebra, infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja discusses a paper he helped author in the New England Journal of Medicine. “Anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox…bioterrorism is a real threat. It hasn’t gone away. Just because we haven’t had an attack doesn’t mean we can be any less prepared,” he warns.

 

A professional journalist nearly 30 years, David Heitz started his career at the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa before moving to Los Angeles. He led the Glendale News-Press to best small daily newspaper in the state (CNPA) as managing editor and also worked as executive news editor of the Press-Telegram. He worked briefly as deputy news editor of the Detroit News before returning to the Quad-Cities, where he has worked as a freelance medical writer since 2012 for several national websites. He recently purchased his childhood home and says he truly is “living the dream.”