Nations Must Wake Up to Catastrophic Potential of Pandemic Risk: Report

By John Tozzi | January 14, 2016

In October of 2000, an Ebola outbreak was detected in Gulu, Uganda. The virus spread across the country, infecting 425 people and killing over half of them. It was a wakeup call for the African nation, but apparently not the rest of the world.

Uganda responded by creating systems to spot brewing epidemics; making “village health teams” responsible for monitoring a few dozen households each and building labs so specimens could be tested in 24 hours. While another Ebola outbreak seven years later took weeks to investigate, by 2011 Ugandan authorities were responding in a day or two, keeping deaths to a minimum.

The world needs a similar transformation to prevent outbreaks of infectious disease that threaten security and economic stability, according to a new report sponsored by several major foundations. Pandemics—epidemics that spread across the globe—could cost humanity $6 trillion in the 21st century, or $60 billion a year, the authors estimate. They argue for investing $4.5 billion a year—or 65 cents for every resident of the planet—to prepare.

“There are very few threats that can compare with infectious diseases in terms of their potential to result in catastrophic loss of life,” the report states. “Yet nations devote only a fraction of the resources spent on national security to prevent and prepare for pandemics.”

The document, commissioned by heavy hitters like the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was written by 17 academics, policymakers, and nonprofit and industry leaders from across the globe. Threaded through its acronym-filled bureaucratese is a politely scathing assessment of the World Health Organization, particularly its handling of the most recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa. That epidemic is only now coming to an end after almost two years and 11,000 dead.

The authors say the WHO, the arm of the United Nations charged with protecting the world from disease, is unprepared for the task. Noting that “there is no realistic alternative” to the underfunded agency, the commission says the WHO “must make significant changes in order to play this role effectively. It needs more capability and more resources, and it must demonstrate more leadership.”

The group argues a few billion dollars a year to improve national health systems, as Uganda did, would be a small insurance policy against catastrophic risks. The flu pandemic in 1918-19 killed at least 50 million people and drained 5 percent from global GDP, the authors note.

The thousands of Ebola deaths in West Africa over the past few years may have focused world attention on vulnerabilities. Then again, the report’s authors acknowledge that we’ve seen this movie before.

“After every outbreak of infectious disease, there is a flurry of activity and reports, but political interest quickly wanes and other priorities dominate,” the authors write. It’s unclear whether the rest of the world will learn what Uganda has.

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