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The World Is 'Grossly Unprepared' for the Next Big Virus Outbreak, Study Finds

Which is a problem, because infectious diseases are projected to become only more common.

by Katherine Gillespie
Jan 24 2017, 5:00pm

A team of international public health experts has issued a dire warning to the world. That is, we've learned little from recent Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks, and we're "grossly underprepared" for whatever the next terrifying epidemic might be. Publishing its findings in BHM Journal, a research team led by Dr. Suerie Moon from the Harvard Department of Global Health and Population identified a number of serious weaknesses within the strategies of governing bodies and health organizations tasked with preparing for epidemics.

One of the report's key messages is that this ill-preparedness is inexcusable given we have so much data on infectious diseases. In the wake of 2014's West Africa Ebola virus outbreak, international health experts were quick to piece together what went wrong, and why we weren't fast enough to curtail a disease that killed around 11,000. Given that the number of global disease outbreaks has increased in the past three decades, and that trend is set to continue, you'd have hoped that such findings would have provided a bit of a wake-up call.

But as the study shows, the world has been slow to learn. Assessing seven high-profile reports written about the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak, it concludes that we've failed to use this information to our advantage. If a pandemic broke out tomorrow, we'd make the same Ebola mistakes again.

As the report states:

"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. The seven reports on the Ebola crisis largely agreed on the fundamental reasons behind our collective failure and the priorities for change... But many problems remain, without dedicated political or financial resources...The world will not be ready for the next outbreak without deeper and more comprehensive change."

The study notes that many critical weaknesses have been given "inadequate political or financial resources," suggesting that the global community "needs to increase resources and implement monitoring and accountability mechanisms to ensure the world is better prepared for the next pandemic."

The Ebola outbreak in 2014 wasn't even the world's first. This photograph shows scientists testing samples from animals collected in Zaire during the 1995 Ebola outbreak.

Dr. Grant Hill-Cawthorne, a senior lecturer in communicable disease at the Sydney University School of Public Health, agrees. "Significant lessons were learned from the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa," he said. "We realized that many countries are far from achieving the core capacities in public health detection and response. And it was re-emphasized that the World Health Organization (WHO) is not set up for or funded to investigate and respond to outbreaks adequately."

In an ideal world, he explains, we need to be able to detect new infections that are occurring with higher frequency early on. "Ideally this would be occurring in both humans and animals, because if we wait for humans to be the sentinel animal of a new outbreak, it means the pathogen already exists widely in nature. And we need systems in place that put together laboratory and syndromic data, and can compare this to background levels to give us an early signal of an emerging new disease."

Once a new disease is recognized, Hill-Cawthorne said, we then need good methods of isolating and quarantining patients. "It's important to have clear trial protocols so that new therapies can very quickly be tried in the field," he explained.

Despite the study's dire findings, developed countries have sophisticated notifiable disease systems that enable an early detection of viruses. So it's the underdeveloped world that will suffer.

"The likely hotspots [for outbreak] are Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Africa, and South America—where the combination of potential vectors, mixing of humans, livestock, and wildlife, and less capacity for public health surveillance are likely to coexist," Hill-Cawthorne said.

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