Are we prepared for the next pandemic?

What should the world do about the next pandemic? Crippling diseases such as the H1N1 influenza virus have made headlines with regularity over the past century. But how much have we learned about the vulnerabilities that could come with a pandemic?

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Two high-profile events last year – the 2016 presidential election and this year’s World Health Organization (WHO) assembly in Geneva – serve as a reminder of the threats looming in the global arena.

Of particular interest is WHO’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which focuses on achieving “universal health coverage” (UHC). The AU says that this goal could only be attained if countries remain vigilant in protecting people from “public health emergencies” – and disasters such as pandemics or other calamities.

But how prepared are countries around the world? A new report, released by the Partnership for Risk and Security Policy (PRSP), reveals significant gaps in knowledge about the challenges that can come with pandemics and other global health emergencies.

“The world is unprepared”

PRSP, an alliance of UN agencies, NGOs and businesses, developed its findings with the help of more than 130 experts from around the world.

The report shows that health experts still lack the understanding and skills to effectively deal with pandemics, which can be deadly and ultimately destroy a country’s economy.

The authors call on countries to invest in physical infrastructure that can counter the strains caused by a pandemic. For example, all major ports should be on high alert, and equipment should be stockpiled to prevent a disease from entering or spreading to other countries.

The risk of a pandemic, PRSP says, has been underestimated since the earliest days of the world’s history. Today, 80 percent of pandemics are still the product of “errors in transmission”; scientists are not able to pinpoint the exact routes of contagion and why a disease has spread, leaving little to guide intervention efforts in the case of a disaster.

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Last year, an outbreak of yellow fever in Senegal, Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau spread from person to person, in some cases showing no symptoms. Such unusual resistance to treatment is a worrying sign, one that has led many experts to express concern over the possibility of a “migratory pandemic” – an outbreak that is more likely to spread in a disaster-prone area and far more likely to result in large numbers of deaths.

Yet there is little evidence that countries are adapting to the changing nature of pandemics; over the last decade, for example, scientists have been seeking out new drugs and vaccines that can act in such a manner. However, just one in six countries have taken any steps to protect their citizens and to help strengthen their health systems, the report notes.

PRSP wants to see its 2025 Plan for Enduring and Secure Health Systems and Communities implemented in 70 percent of countries by 2035. Such a move would be a major step forward, the authors write, but until that happens, health experts will have to continue to worry about the limits of the World Health Organization’s mandate and what it can do to ease the impact of future pandemics.

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