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Preventing the Next Pandemic

For too long, health emergencies have been met with a cycle of panic and neglect – an approach that is putting all of us at growing risk. Governments worldwide must start thinking ahead and increase funding at the community, national, and international levels to shore up health systems and prevent the spread of outbreaks.

GENEVA – Imagine the following scenario. In a matter of days, a lethal influenza pandemic spreads around the world, halting trade and travel, triggering social chaos, gutting the global economy, and endangering tens of millions of lives. Such a large-scale disease outbreak is an alarming – but entirely realistic – prospect. To mitigate the risks, the world must take steps now to prepare.

Over the last several years, a litany of outbreaks – from yellow fever to Ebola – have occurred, including in densely populated areas. Now, a new report by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board warns that humankind is stumbling toward the twenty-first-century equivalent of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which affected one-third of the world’s population and killed approximately 50 million people.

A similar outbreak today would spread much faster and more widely, and could severely affect economies globally – potentially resulting in a loss of 5% of the global economy. And yet, despite the threat that this and other health emergencies pose to global security, preparing for them is rarely a priority for political leaders. As of today, no government has fully funded or implemented the International Health Regulations, the principal international treaty for health security, to which all countries have committed. It is thus not surprising that the world is woefully unprepared for a rapidly moving airborne pandemic.