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The Long-Term Response To The Ebola Crisis Needs To Go Back To Basics

More epidemics are coming. Jeff Sachs argues that the solution to preventing their spread aren’t high tech, they’re simple.

The Long-Term Response To The Ebola Crisis Needs To Go Back To Basics
[Doctors: Getty]

Many articles and commentators have remarked on how the tragic Ebola crisis in West Africa is much worse than it would have been in had the outbreak occurred in a developed country. If someone caught Ebola in the U.S., the infected patient would have received high-quality medical attention and been quickly isolated. An epidemic would have certainly been kept from spreading out of control as it has in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea (and Nigeria, to a lesser extent), where more people have died than during every past Ebola outbreak combined. Officials are now resorting to cordoning off the worst affected areas.

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That, according to Columbia University economist and global development expert Jeffrey Sachs, should be a huge wakeup call. In an age of rapid exchange facilitated by global networks, megacities, and airline and ship travel, the state of global public health is only as strong as its weakest link when it comes to emerging infectious diseases, he writes in an essay posted on Project Syndicate.

“Is the world ready for Ebola, a new lethal influenza, a mutation of HIV that could speed the transfer of the disease, or the development of new multi-drug-resistant strains of malaria or other pathogens?” he asks. “The answer is no.”

The World Health Organization declared a rare public health emergency in response to the outbreak (since 2007, it’s declared two others, for swine flu and the reemergence of polio) and is dedicating emergency funding, aid, and expert assistance, as are the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the African Development Bank, and other organizations. An American biotech company has sent the last of its few doses of an experimental treatment to Liberia (the other doses were given to two sick Americans and a Spaniard).

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But beyond measures necessary to control the outbreak at hand, Sachs looks towards the long-term lessons.

“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,” he writes. Ebola is only the latest recent epidemic, before that AIDS, SARS, H1N1 flu, and H7N9 flu have and are still taking their tolls (The deadliest, AIDS, has killed 36 million people since 1981).

What needs to be done:

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Expand the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria

As it stands now, the World Health Organization is terribly underfunded and has had to cut its budget by 12% in the last two years, limiting its response capabilities. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria also doesn’t have the needed resources to “win the war” against these diseases, Sachs says. He recommends expanding the Global Fund’s mandate and budget, so that it is a basic public health fund for low-income countries. Sachs notes that the greatest areas of urgency are South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Put Community Health Workers In Every Village

If every rural village and urban slum had some basic levels of community health care, then front-line workers trained to recognize infectious illnesses could limit the spread of diseases and provide better care to those who are most susceptible to them. According to Sachs, it would cost $5 billion a year to put well-trained health workers in every African community. That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s only half of what the startup Snapchat–a company that has never made any money–was recently valued at by investors.

Better Disease Surveillance and Biomedical Research

There’s no vaccine or commercially-available treatment for Ebola yet, in large part because drug companies have little profit incentive to develop one. That’s when high-income countries need to step in and either directly provide funds for research or offer the incentives so private companies will do so. Similarly, it falls on high-income countries to invest in global disease surveillance, so that new and emerging diseases and outbreaks can be caught early. As Sachs writes: “Despite tight national budgets, it would be reckless to put our very survival on the fiscal chopping block.”

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Ebola is scary no matter what. But the next outbreak might be far less lethal if these kinds of measures are put in place.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire

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