WASHINGTON - Health experts warn we are due for a cataclysmic pandemic — they just don’t know when it will happen.
The warning was delivered this week to world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly by a special global health monitoring group that said the next pandemic could traverse the world in 36 hours, killing up to 80 million and causing devastating economic loss.
The group, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, operates independently of the World Health Organization and the World Bank, the entities that created it last year with a mandate to issue an annual assessment. The first report was grim.
Lack of medical care a threat
Despite remarkable gains in medicine, politics and social issues keep those in rich countries as well as poor ones from desperately needed medical care, and this threatens the entire world.
Medical achievements of the past several decades are remarkable. AIDS once meant enduring a horrible death, but now treatment has changed that and research on a vaccine is promising.
Moreover, there’s talk about ending malaria, a disease that kills half a million people each year, most of them children.
Scientists are also closing in on Ebola. A vaccine and two new drugs to treat those infected are saving lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ebola used to kill up to 90% of its victims. Now, it’s been reversed.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and a member of the board, says with a low viral load, someone infected with the Ebola virus now has a 90% chance of surviving.
This report warns that the world is woefully unprepared for the next pandemic. So unprepared that the next pandemic could kill up to 80 million people and cause enormous economic suffering.
The report is intended for political leaders. One of the board’s co-chairs is both a doctor and a politician. Gro Harlem Brundtland is a former prime minister of Norway and a former head of the World Health Organization. She likens health to a military threat in response to which an entire government comes together.
“This has to be the same in global health security,” Brundtland said.
Fauci just returned from a trip to East Africa to assess progress against an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I was clearly impressed at the capabilities of the Congolese who are administering the care here, as well as the preparedness of the Rwandans and the Ugandans, in case cases spill over the border,” he said.
The board cited stigma as a problem that makes it more difficult to stop the spread of disease. Diseases like tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, Ebola and others carry such a stigma that those who are infected often don’t seek treatment. Political leaders can create policies to erase stigma, the board said.
The report cited poverty and lack of clean water and sanitation as incubators for infectious disease. Political leaders can fund cleaning up polluted water and improving hygiene.
“We need to have a stronger preparedness across the board to avoid unnecessary loss of life and large economic losses,” Brundtland warned.
The monitoring group also cited prolonged conflict and forced migration as risk factors for the spread of disease. It urged countries to establish emergency preparedness from the local level on up, to build trust and to work cooperatively to improve responses to serious threats and ensure health of the world’s 7.7 billion people.