Approach to outbreaks must change

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Ebola warning in African village
Health

In conversation with the Guardian, Head of the World Health Organization Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus highlighted a worrying trend when it comes to the spread of infectious diseases.

He stated that the world’s second worst Ebola outbreak ─ the ongoing outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in which there have been more than 2,100 cases and more than 1,412 confirmed deaths in just over a year ─ should serve as a ‘global wake-up call’.

According to Dr Ghebreyesus, it’s only when there is ‘fear and panic’ in the headlines that the international community invests money in responding to such outbreaks. He believes the real issue is a lack of day-to-day funding for preparedness to combat serious epidemics and stem their spread, and highlighted the need for a preventative rather than reactive approach: “Preparedness is the solution, not firefighting. The problem is that [donors] refrain from paying until there is fear and panic. That has to change. We should not be funding huge amounts when we panic, but should be funding to avoid panic.”

He told the Guardian that he believes the outbreak in the DRC can be controlled in the short term but that it will inevitably return, pointing out the unstable political situation in the country and a lack of understanding, which are causing problems. “What concerns me is the lack of understanding about how to make our world safe,” he said. “We’re not investing in preparedness to detect outbreaks quickly. We are investing after the problem comes and knocks on our door when it’s too late. So how can we move on from that mindset? We have to be as strong as the weakest link and we need to invest in strengthening the systems of the weakest link.”

Dr Ghebreyesus also highlighted unsettling feedback from the community: “When I talk to the community it is embarrassing for me, because they say, ‘You are only interested in Ebola because you do not want it in your own countries and you are trying to protect yourselves while mothers and children are dying here’.”

It is clear that in order to combat disease in developing countries, support from developed countries is crucial. We must act as a united front and ensure that the right tools, education and support are reaching the countries that need it most. If better prevention can be enacted we have a chance to stop the spread before it has even begun, and this should be the goal. And for ongoing outbreaks, we must continue to pool our tools and resources and ensure that the countries affected are not left behind.