Pandemics: Global health officials face ‘unpreparedness’

Image copyright Reuters Image caption Peter Sands, former chief executive of Standard Chartered Bank, is among the 200-plus authors of this report

It is feared that the world is “far from prepared” for another global pandemic, according to a new report which says the medical community has underestimated the threat.

Researchers say pandemics are more likely than scientists believed a decade ago, as the number of people who die from diseases has increased, particularly in the developing world.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says more urgent action is needed.

The UN said 21 states have never seen a pandemic, and a lack of resources is restricting countries’ ability to respond.

For instance, data collection is vital to better understand the way new viruses spread, and to develop vaccines and treatments.

But health systems are stretched and lack the expertise to respond.

“All too often in the past, health officials have chosen to sit on their hands rather than be proactive and take steps to limit risk,” said the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“But pandemics have emerged again and again in the world we live in.”

The WHO reports found that 37 countries had only a single sample collected from infections, which means many samples are missing.

Image copyright AFP Image caption Tarik Jasarevic of the WHO with countries which have never seen a pandemic

The report has been compiled by a team at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The authors warn that they have only tested 11% of the data that would have been needed for an accurate assessment of the future threat of pandemics.

“It is clear that [sifting through the data] is not possible for now,” the report said.

“The situation is further complicated by the weakness of some data and the scarcity of information in some parts of the world.”

It also comes at a time when the healthcare system is stretched by the flu season, with a rise in cases of the flu in New York last week.

‘Much more imminent’

Jonathan Ball, former BBC science correspondent and author of the book The Five People You Meet in Heaven, said that the “danger” of another pandemic was far more acute now than in 1976, when the US Congress told the NIH and the CDC not to announce the discovery of a new and potentially dangerous virus for fear of panic.

“But, very few scientists were then prepared to use that kind of reaction, which would have caused the US government to completely scatter its vaccine programme into scrapheap of History.

“Yet, we are now in a much more urgent situation. We don’t have the same protection as we had then.

“But we do have it now. All that’s needed is action.”

Shedding light on the issue

The WHO has put out a report of its own on the health risks of a pandemic.

It has set out the latest evidence on the different symptoms of different diseases and the chances of emerging ones.

Skeptics will question the need for a second report, given that the WHO report only takes up part of the new work from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).

But the WHO report argues that, “it will also shed light on some of the most pertinent public health challenges in the twenty-first century.”

Richard Vevers, executive director of research at IHME, said that there was more pressure now to show the “reasonableness” of predictions and evaluations.

“It’s realising that things are different now than when we used to talk about pandemics. There’s a real sense of urgency that really needs to be reflected in public health plans.”

(This article was updated in October 2018 to correct a reference to the title of the BBC’s former science correspondent, Jonathan Ball.)

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