Ebola and Innovation

Informed, data-driven public policy to manage the current Ebola outbreak must remain a top priority. But it is equally important to take stock of the epidemic’s lessons and to ensure that we are prepared for the emergence of other diseases.

BOSTON – Lives are not all that have been lost in the ongoing Ebola crisis. In recent discussions about how to combat the virus, the methodical rigor of science and medicine has given way to hyperbolic politics and public hysteria. To be sure, informed, data-driven public policy to manage the current outbreak must remain a top priority. But it is equally important to take stock of the epidemic’s lessons and to ensure that we are prepared for the emergence of other diseases.

Two major lessons should be learned from the current Ebola outbreak. First, the fight against a single disease must not come at the expense of strengthening an entire health-care system. Countries with fragile health systems may be able to tackle a given ailment with the help of NGOs and foreign governments, but they are likely to be dangerously unprepared when confronted with unexpected outbreaks of new diseases.

In Liberia, for example, the prevalence of malaria in children under the age of five declined from 66% in 2005 to below 32% in 2011. Nonetheless, when the Ebola virus entered Liberia from neighboring Guinea earlier this year, the country’s health-care infrastructure was quickly overwhelmed. More than 2,000 Liberians have died of the disease, and the virus remains rampant. Similarly, unless they strengthen the health-care system as a whole, other countries that have performed well in some areas – say, the fight against Ebola – could still face large death tolls and long-term economic turmoil.

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