The global community cannot withstand another Ebola outbreak: The World Bank estimates the two-year financial burden price tag of the current epidemic at $32.6 billion. Unfortunately, the virus has revealed gaping holes in our preparedness for major infectious disease epidemics. Because of these, plus the urbanization of rural communities and globalization of travel and trade, more of these epidemics are expected.
In a new report from the EcoHealth Alliance published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), experts estimate that the world will see about five new emerging infectious diseases each year and that we need new prevention strategies to cut economic losses.
Using economic modeling, the researchers analyzed two strategies. We're familiar with the first, a business-as-usual approach that relies on global surveillance systems to track and identify new diseases emerging in people. The second strategy is what the researchers call "mitigation," where global players go after what's actually causing the emergence of unknown diseases.
That's considered the more economically prudent of the two options (though it's not what we're doing.) Even a mild disease outbreak can have big financial consequences. The report shows that the cost of an influenza pandemic ranges from $374 billion for a mild one to $7.3 trillion for one that's severe. That figure also accounts for a 12.6% loss in gross domestic product and millions of lives lost. It's a worst-case scenario, but not unimaginable, considering that the Ebola outbreak has already infected well over 18,000 people, and it's not even an airborne virus.
Currently, our global health response is reactive. Once cases of an infectious disease are confirmed in a lab, various organizations from the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) send in specialists to start containing the disease. As the new report notes, this is too slow and often comes too late.
Pandemics are typically caused by diseases that emerge from animals and somehow make their way—via a bite or human consumption—into the human population. Therefore, the report authors argue that a viable economic option for containment is a strategy that addresses environmental changes like deforestation that contribute to the spread of infected animals, like bushmeat, bats or insects, into the human population. Some of the same commitments and strategies applied to fighting climate change could be applied to a joint infectious disease strategy.
The report highlights the USAID's Emerging Pandemic Threats program PREDICT-2 project, which has poured resources into understanding what drives disease emergence and what human behaviors cause it to spread widely. The project also supports the "One Health" approach, which means working closely with physicians, ecologists and veterinarians to track and understand disease.
The researchers say widespread adoption of strategies like these should happen within 27 years to reduce the annual rise of emerging infectious disease events by 50%. The price tag? A one-time cost of approximately $343.7 billion. "Mitigation is a more cost-effective policy than business-as-usual adaptation programs, saving between $344.0.7 billion and $360.3 billion over the next 100 year if implemented today," the authors write.
The cost versus benefit breakdown favors a plan such as this, but ultimately, the question will be who gets stuck with the tab. The authors of the report suggest taxes or partnering with industry, possibly the private sector, to fund systems like clinics and food supply chains. Those will reduce bushmeat consumption, make diagnostics faster, and hopefully help prevent some of the problems we're currently facing with Ebola.