By the time the world responded to the Ebola crisis, it was too late to contain it, and thousands of deaths occurred that experts say could have been prevented. An independent panel of 22 Ebola experts and policy leaders published a report in The Lancet on Nov. 22 calling for sweeping reforms.
During the outbreak, they argue, national health systems weren’t equipped to handle such a crisis, global leaders disagreed on key decisions like travel bans, and governments and international agencies like the World Health Organisation didn’t communicate properly, which led to panic and confusion around the world.
These failures are bigger than Ebola: They exposed a global health system that isn’t equipped to handle a similar outbreak in the future — or one that may be even worse.
“It was very clear to us that the world had really failed,” said Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute and co-chair of the report. “We saw this as a very important problem — not just because it was such a devastating epidemic for people in West Africa — but also because the next one could be far more disastrous.”
If the changes recommended in the report aren’t made to our vulnerable and unprepared health system, Jha said, a number of worst-case scenarios could occur. For example: The world could be hit with another outbreak that spirals out of control, but this time the virus could be the flu, which is much more contagious than Ebola. Since humans are coming into contact with so many more animals due to deforestation, a virus could emerge that the world has never seen before. Or, Jha said, bioterrorists could release a dangerously designed virus that elicits an outbreak.
The panel suggests a number of changes that need to be made to health systems and authorities around the world, particularly to the World Health Organisation. And they do so without requesting any additional funding for the WHO, Jha notes, because one of the problems they identify is the agency’s inefficiency.
The panel’s recommendations include encouraging countries to report outbreaks sooner, incentivizing companies to develop diagnostic tests and treatments for neglected diseases like Ebola, and creating a centralised group within the WHO that handles global outbreaks, among several others.
The panel is hoping that the devastation of the Ebola outbreak will encourage actual change to happen soon. “Our primary goal is to convince high-level political leaders worldwide to make necessary and enduring changes to better prepare for future outbreaks while memories of the human costs of inaction remain vivid and fresh,” they wrote in the report.
Everyday citizens can help by encouraging their leaders to make these changes, Jha said, and to get informed about these issues so as to not overreact and support measures like closing our borders. That’s not effective in a globalized world, Jha noted.
“This is not a problem just for people in West Africa, or in India, or in China — this is truly a global problem, and we’ve got to fix it,” he said. “Fixing it in the middle of the next epidemic won’t work. Now is the window to fix it, and I think we can.”
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