Global pandemic preparedness remains in question

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons From 2014–2016 the Ebola virus caused a devastating pandemic that killed many people throughout West Africa.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
From 2014–2016 the Ebola virus caused a devastating pandemic that killed many people throughout West Africa.

BY SABRINA EDWARDS '20

From 2014 to 2016, West Africa endured the largest known outbreak of the Ebola virus, a devastating viral infection which causes bleeding and organ failure. In Sept. 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report stating that the worst of the pandemic was still to come as local healthcare systems, international health groups and medical professionals all rushed to catch up to the disease. This report predicted that with "every 30-day delay in increasing the percentage of patients in [Ebola Treatment Units]... was associated with an approximate tripling in the number of daily cases that occur at the peak of the epidemic."

From the predictions in the report and knowledge that transnational health organizations had obtained from previous epidemics, like the Haiti cholera outbreak following the 2010 earthquake, the international community has a fair amount of knowledge and experience dealing with pandemics. 

A pandemic disease outbreak is an outbreak that is widespread across a country or the world while an epidemic disease outbreak is generally restricted to a specific community. The prevalence of global travel and the tendencies of humans to live close to each other and animals can allow epidemics to quickly transform to pandemics. According to the World Health Organization constitution, health is "a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." Thus, global health crises include not only pandemic disease outbreaks but also any obstacles to "physical, mental and social well being," including climate change concerns, lack of nutrition and clean water and outdated healthcare systems. 

According to the director general of the WHO, Dr. Margaret Chan, in the case of the recent West African Ebola crisisand subsequent global health crises, "no fundamental public health infrastructures were in place, and this is what allowed the virus to spiral out of control." Though after the first few months of the crisis the global community eventually stepped in and helped, the lack of infrastructure already in place made for a challenging work environment and put many healthcare workers at unnecessary risk. Dr. Chan further explained the impact the lack of infrastructure on a global scale by stating, "when a deadly and dreaded virus hits the destitute and spirals out of control, the whole world is put at risk. Our 21st century societies are interconnected, interdependent and electronically wired together as never before."

In response to this and other health crises along with natural disasters, the UN adopted The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 as a follow-up to previous efforts to develop infrastructure to lessen the damage of large-scale natural disasters. Though the health infrastructure benefits are only a part of the larger framework, Dr. Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director General for Emergencies at the WHO stated that, "recent and ongoing disasters – from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to the Ebola crisis in West Africa – highlight the centrality of human health to our collective goals in disaster risk reduction by all sectors."

The potential impact of the Sendai Framework and the recent priorities set forth by the World Health Assembly (including renewed emphasis of International Health Regulations) will not manifest itself for some time as the world adjusts to new recommendations and requirements. However, healthcare professionals are optimistic about what the future could hold for these new definitions and emphases in global health initiatives.

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