A world at risk: the mounting threat of pandemic diseases

New report says a global outbreak could kill 80 million people

Virus, disease
Microscopic ciliates called Halteria has been identified as first known organism that can live off viruses only
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The risk of major pandemics that could kill millions of people and destabilise the global economy is increasing - and governments are not adequately prepared.

That’s the stark warning from a new report by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), a 15-member group of political leaders, heads of agencies and experts convened by the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The report says that the threat of a pandemic spreading to countries across the world is a “real one”. “A quick-moving pathogen has the potential to kill tens of millions of people, disrupt economies and destabilise national security,” it says. “Disease thrives in disorder and has taken advantage — outbreaks have been on the rise for the past several decades and the spectre of a global health emergency looms large.”

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Deutsche Welle notes that in a world where “long-term conflicts, forced migration and fragile states become more commonplace”, epidemic-prone viral diseases such as Ebola, SARS and influenza have become “increasingly difficult to control”.

And “greater population density and the ability to travel anywhere in the world within 36 hours” means disease can spread rapidly through a country and then go worldwide, CNN adds.

Which diseases are a threat?

According to the report, certain diseases pose a far greater epidemic risk to humans than others.

Between 2011 and 2018, the WHO tracked 1,483 epidemic events across 172 countries in order to calculate the risk of individual conditions.

It discovered that influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Ebola, Zika, plague and yellow fever are “harbingers of a new era of high-impact, potentially fast-spreading outbreaks that are more frequently detected and increasingly difficult to manage”.

With the exception of Zika, all of these conditions are potentially fatal if patients are not administered with adequate treatment, although Zika still has the capacity to cause severe birth defects if contracted by pregnant women.

How many deaths would occur?

In the report, GPMB co-chairs Gro Harlem Brundtland and Elhadj As Sy painted a bleak picture of the future should a major epidemic take hold.

“If it is true to say ‘what’s past is prologue’, then there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people,” they write.

This estimate aligns with a report released by the WHO earlier this year in which it also warned of the inevitability of a major pandemic, warning that particular attention should be paid to influenza.

Researchers at both the WHO and GPMB pointed to the disease’s last pandemic as a reference point. During that outbreak in 1918 - known as “Spanish flu” - roughly 50 million people were killed.

What would the cost be?

Using the cost of past epidemics - including the 2003 SARS epidemic and 2014-2016 West Africa Ebola outbreak - the GPMB estimates that a global influenza pandemic “akin to the scale and virulence of the one in 1918” would cost the modern economy $3trn or “up to 4.8% of gross domestic product”.

“Models predict the annual cost of a global influenza pandemic would mean that South Asia’s GDP would drop by 2% ($53bn), and sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP by 1.7% ($28bn), the latter equivalent to erasing a full year’s economic growth,” the report adds.

This loss, according to the GPMB, would mostly be a result of a significant drop in productivity. Yet the report also notes that should an epidemic occur, subsequent control costs (which are too difficult to estimate at present) would likely “completely overwhelm the current financing arrangements for emergency response”.

Preparedness

The most damning comments from the report were reserved for governments and NGOs, which it claims are woefully underprepared for a potential pandemic.

The report admits that efforts have been made by these institutions to increase preparedness for major disease outbreaks since the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-2016, but adds that these efforts were still “grossly insufficient”.

According to Brundtland, current management is characterised by “a cycle of panic and neglect” rather than effective preparedness.

As a result the GPMB alleges that in the case of a major epidemic, the sheer number of patients and astronomic financial costs would likely cause many national health systems - particularly in poor countries - to collapse.

“Poverty and fragility exacerbate outbreaks of infectious disease and help create the conditions for pandemics to take hold,” said Axel van Trotsenburg, acting chief executive of the World Bank and a member of the panel.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said governments should invest in strengthening health systems, boost funds for research into new technologies, improve coordination and rapid communication systems, and monitor progress continually, says Reuters.

He added that we need to “heed the lessons these outbreaks are teaching us” and “fix the roof before the rain comes”.

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