How to Fight the Next Epidemic

Bill Gates in the New York Times: “The Ebola Crisis Was Terrible. But Next Time Could Be Much Worse….Much of the public discussion about the world’s response to Ebola has focused on whether the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other groups could have responded more effectively. These are worthwhile questions, but they miss the larger point. The problem isn’t so much that the system didn’t work well enough. The problem is that we hardly have a system at all.

To begin with, most poor countries, where a natural epidemic is most likely to start, have no systematic disease surveillance in place. Even once the Ebola crisis was recognized last year, there were no resources to effectively map where cases occurred, or to use people’s travel patterns to predict where the disease might go next….

Data is another crucial problem. During the Ebola epidemic, the database that tracks cases has not always been accurate. This is partly because the situation is so chaotic, but also because much of the case reporting has been done on paper and then sent to a central location for data entry….

I believe that we can solve this problem, just as we’ve solved many others — with ingenuity and innovation.

We need a global warning and response system for outbreaks. It would start with strengthening poor countries’ health systems. For example, when you build a clinic to deliver primary health care, you’re also creating part of the infrastructure for fighting epidemics. Trained health care workers not only deliver vaccines; they can also monitor disease patterns, serving as part of the early warning systems that will alert the world to potential outbreaks. Some of the personnel who were in Nigeria to fight polio were redeployed to work on Ebola — and that country was able to contain the disease very quickly.

We also need to invest in disease surveillance. We need a case database that is instantly accessible to the relevant organizations, with rules requiring countries to share their information. We need lists of trained personnel, from local leaders to global experts, prepared to deal with an epidemic immediately. … (More)”