World Remains Unprepared for Future Infectious Disease Outbreaks

Most of the Ebola-related deaths in West Africa could have been prevented, experts say.

The world is still grossly underprepared for another infectious disease outbreak, and experts warn we will not be ready for the next outbreak unless significant changes are made.

In an analysis published in The BMJ, a team of international experts examined reports on the recent Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. The investigators found that a majority of the 11,000 deaths directly attributed to Ebola could have been prevented through better preparedness, and a faster, more coordinated response.

Furthermore, it could have prevented the broader economic, social, and health crises that arose as a result.

The investigators synthesized 7 major post-Ebola reports, laid out key issues, and highlighted recommendations. They also assessed the progress-to-date, and identified the biggest gaps between recommendations and action in each area of reform.

Although the reports differed in scope and emphasis, the investigators were able to identify key issues and recommendations for action, broken into 3 critical areas.

The critical areas were strengthening compliance with the International Health Regulations; improving outbreak-related research and knowledge sharing; and reforming the World Health Organization (WHO) and the broader humanitarian response system.

Significant efforts have been made that began to address these issues; however, progress has been mixed, with many crucial issues that are still not addressed, according to the authors. Some unaddressed issues include inadequate investments in country capacity building, which is also difficult to track; arrangements for fair and timely sharing of patient samples remains weak; and reform efforts at WHO had focused on operational issues, while neglecting to address deeper institutional shortcomings.

“We found remarkable consensus on what went wrong with the Ebola response and what we need to do to address the deficiencies,” the authors wrote. “Yet not nearly enough has been done.

“Ebola, and more recently Zika and yellow fever, have demonstrated that we do not yet have a reliable or robust global system for preventing, detecting, and responding to disease outbreaks.”

The authors stressed that the global community needs to work to mobilize greater resources, and also put monitoring and accountability mechanisms in place to be better prepared for the next pandemic.

Outbreaks of infectious diseases are likely to become more frequent in the coming decades and “we will not be ready for the next outbreak without deeper and more comprehensive change,” the authors concluded.