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World not prepared for the next big pandemic: report

In this photo taken Sunday, May 20, 2018, a team from Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) dons protective clothing and equipment as they prepare to treat Ebola patients in an isolation ward of Mbandaka hospital in Congo.
In this photo taken Sunday, May 20, 2018, a team from Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) dons protective clothing and equipment as they prepare to treat Ebola patients in an isolation ward of Mbandaka hospital in Congo. Louise Annaud/Medecins Sans Frontieres via AP

Governments and international organizations aren’t ready to deal with a major pandemic, according to a new report from an international monitoring body.

In its first annual report, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board found that the world is at “acute risk for devastating regional or global disease epidemics or pandemics that not only cause loss of life but upend economies and create social chaos.”

“I would say that in our analysis of the data, looking at a variety of sources, the world is really quite poorly prepared,” said Dr. Victor Dzau, a board member and director of the National Academy of Medicine in the U.S.

The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board was created by the World Health Organization and the World Bank as an independent monitoring body for pandemic preparedness after the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The group was launched in May 2018 and includes many notable health officials from around the world.

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Officials examined how an airborne disease, like influenza, could travel around the world. Something as deadly as the Spanish flu, spread with our easy access to air travel, could spread around the world in less than 36 hours and potentially kill more than 50 million people, the report said.

“In addition to tragic levels of mortality, such a pandemic could cause panic, destabilize national security and seriously impact the global economy and trade,” reads the report.

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Just this spring, the WHO warned of an inevitable future influenza pandemic.

“The question is not if we will have another pandemic, but when,” said director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Dzau also thinks it’s highly likely there will be many more big pandemics.

A recent WHO report estimated the economic cost of a Spanish flu-like pandemic at $500 billion USD, or around 0.6 per cent of global income.

READ MORE: 100 years ago, the Spanish flu killed millions. Could it happen again?

Many countries lack the ability to identify that an outbreak is beginning, according to the report. Then, they lack the ability to deal with it through their health care systems, the drugs to fight it, and the financial resources to pay for any health interventions.

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Building the world’s emergency response capacity is a huge job, though. “Not easy, to be sure, but I think we need to start by shining a big light on this,” Dzau said.

The first step, he said, is for countries to assess their capacity to deal with a health crisis and identify their weaknesses. Then, they can come up with a plan for addressing them.

Dzau also suggested that World Bank investments in poorer countries could be tied to those countries using the money to improve their health care — something he acknowledges could be a tough sell, politically.

“I think this whole issue is political,” he said. “We need a lot of political will to make this happen.”

While creating all these things would be expensive, an investment of $1-$2 USD per person per year would be enough to reach an “acceptable” level of preparedness, according to the report.

A yearly investment of $1.9 billion-3.4 billion USD could yield a benefit of  $30 billion USD worldwide, the report’s authors say, as the economy wouldn’t be nearly as disrupted by pandemics as it usually is, not even considering the loss of life involved.

Everyone, including wealthier countries, needs to prepare, Dzau said. “We are one plane ride away from someone carrying a major infection that can be an outbreak,” he said.

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“People get all wrapped up when this happens, all want to act, and when it’s gone, they start forgetting it. ‘It’s not going to happen to me. It’s going to happen to somebody else.’ The fact that you need to put so much work and effort into preparedness — that’s the point we want to make.”