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UN: Millions of Lives at Risk if Epidemic Response Not Improved

Ebola and Zika outbreaks show how quickly health crises can spiral out of control, panel finds

Such an endemic may be imminent, as the WHO officially declares the Zika virus currently spreading throughout the Americas a "public health emergency." (Photo: Conred Guatemala/flickr/cc)

Outbreaks of disease could kill millions of people around the world if national and international health response systems are not improved, a United Nations panel has warned.

The Ebola crisis which hit West Africa in 2014 shows how easily public health could be decimated by just one disease, and how quickly an outbreak could spiral into a global emergency, the High-level Panel on the Global Response to Health Crises said in a report (pdf) released in advance unedited form in the UN's Daily Journal.

"The high risk of major health crises is widely underestimated, and … the world’s preparedness and capacity to respond is woefully insufficient. Future epidemics could far exceed the scale and devastation of the west Africa Ebola outbreak," the report states.

In particular, the World Health Organization (WHO) is not doing its part in responding in a timely and appropriate scale to these crises:

[T]o date, the WHO’s emergency response capabilities have been lacking, and attempts at reforming the organization have been largely unsuccessful.

[....] If the WHO does not successfully reform, the next major pandemic will cause thousands of otherwise preventable deaths. This may be the last opportunity to ensure that the WHO is empowered to build an effective emergency preparedness and response capacity with the necessary political leadership.

Such an endemic may be imminent, as the WHO officially declares the Zika virus currently spreading throughout the Americas a "public health emergency."

The report continues: "Notwithstanding its devastating impact in west Africa, the Ebola virus is not the most virulent pathogen known to humanity.... [A] virulent strain of an airborne influenza virus could spread to all major global capitals within 60 days and kill more than 33 million people within 250 days."

The WHO must build a new Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response and "ensure that the world has a standing capacity to immediately  identify and respond to emerging communicable disease threats." But that can only happen if countries comply with the WHO's International Health Regulations (IHR), the report states:

These measures should be under the direct authority of the heads of government and should include the establishment of pandemic preparedness and response mechanisms, with clear command and control; hiring and training health professionals and community health workers; and building a comprehensive surveillance system with a national laboratory.

Assistance should be provided to countries requiring additional support for IHR compliance, while WHO and the new Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response must be resourced to meet global needs. In addition, a fund should be established to support R&D for vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics for neglected communicable diseases.

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