Responding to Ebola

The horrific Ebola epidemic in at least four West African countries demands not only an emergency response to halt the outbreak, but also re-consideration of some basic assumptions concerning global public health. Fortunately, a better system is within reach if the world invests appropriately.

NEW YORK – The horrific Ebola epidemic in at least four West African countries (Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria) demands not only an emergency response to halt the outbreak; it also calls for re-thinking some basic assumptions of global public health. We live in an age of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases that can spread quickly through global networks. We therefore need a global disease-control system commensurate with that reality. Fortunately, such a system is within reach if we invest appropriately.

Ebola is the latest of many recent epidemics, also including AIDS, SARS, H1N1 flu, H7N9 flu, and others. AIDS is the deadliest of these killers, claiming nearly 36 million lives since 1981.

Of course, even larger and more sudden epidemics are possible, such as the 1918 influenza during World War I, which claimed 50-100 million lives (far more than the war itself). And, though the 2003 SARS outbreak was contained, causing fewer than 1,000 deaths, the disease was on the verge of deeply disrupting several East Asian economies including China’s.

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