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World unprepared for pandemic, panel warns

Jenipher Camino Gonzalez
September 18, 2019

The next pandemic could spread within 36 hours, disrupt economies and destabilize national security, WHO and World Bank experts have said. The panel said current efforts to manage a pandemic are "grossly insufficient."

ebola workers in Congo
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Delay

An international panel of experts, convened by the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), has warned that disease pandemics pose a threat to millions of people and have the potential to harm the global economy.

The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), a 15-member group of political leaders, heads of agencies, and experts, released their report on Wednesday. They urged governments to do more to prepare for and mitigate the risks of pandemics.

"The threat of a pandemic spreading around the globe is a real one," the GPMB said. "A quick-moving pathogen has the potential to kill tens of millions of people, disrupt economies and destabilize national security."

Epidemic-prone viral diseases like Ebola, SARS and the flu have become increasingly difficult to control, as long-term conflicts, forced migration and fragile states become more commonplace in the world, the report warned.

"Disease thrives in disorder and has taken advantage — outbreaks have been on the rise for the past several decades and the specter of a global health emergency looms large," the GPMB said.

Read more: Big Pharma nixes new drugs despite impending 'antibiotic apocalypse'

Current efforts 'insufficient'

Efforts have been made by governments and NGOs to increase preparedness for major disease outbreaks since the last major outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, in 2014-2016.

But the report said those efforts were still "grossly insufficient." Current management health and diseases emergency is characterized by "a cycle of panic and neglect," said Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former WHO head who co-chaired the Board.

More troubling, the report found that a large number of national health systems, especially in poor nations, would collapse if confronted by a pandemic.

"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.

Read more: Opinion: Ebola in Congo — incompetence, mistrust and greed

The disastrous effects of a modern pandemic

The WHO had warned earlier this year of the inevitability of another flu pandemic, which is caused by airborne viruses.

Researches pointed to the disease's last pandemic, the Spanish flu of 1918, in their report. The outbreak killed roughly 50 million people.

How dangerous is the flu virus?

The group warned that a similar outbreak today would be exacerbated by air travel and could spread throughout the world in less than 36 hours.

"In addition to tragic levels of mortality, such a pandemic could cause panic, destabilize national security and seriously impact the global economy and trade," the GPMB report warned.

Read more: Anti-vaxxer mentality is better tackled through empathy, not facts

Researchers also warned about the current level of mistrust that governments, scientists, the media, public health, and health workers are facing today.

"The situation is exacerbated by misinformation that can hinder disease control communicated quickly and widely via social media,” the report said.

In the event of a pandemic, such a breakdown in public trust represents a serious threat to the effectiveness of governments and public health workers to manage the crisis.

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