Why do we need to invest in global health programmes?
Just look at what’s happening right now in China. It’s only January and we have already seen the first major health alert of the new decade, following an outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, China. In a short amount of time coronavirus, a contagious respiratory infection that can be fatal, has already spread to nearly every province in the country and in the past week has reached Europe and North America.
The speed that the virus has spread and the comparatively high death rate — around 2-3% of cases have been fatal — are definitely reasons to take the virus seriously. To put this in context, the death rate for seasonal flu is less than 0.01%. Wuhan and the surrounding areas are on lockdown and public health teams worldwide are rapidly putting steps in place to manage cases of the virus.
Global responses to disease outbreaks evolve over time. We’ve learned a lot since the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s, and the global H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009 in terms of managing the spread of disease and treatment of large numbers of patients. This will help guide the response to coronavirus and ensure it can be contained as quickly as possible. Among these lessons are two broader points that directly relate to the health programmes that ONE champions.
First, we see time and time again that diseases know no boundaries or borders. The reality of a world in which over 7.7 billion people are busy interacting and moving across borders is that contagious diseases will spread rapidly and cross countries, and continents, in a matter of days, if not hours. So our international borders offer no real or reliable protection against growing pandemics. The bigger lesson here is that winning the fight against diseases will take a collaborative and internationalist approach among partners across the globe to keep ahead of new outbreaks and beat them everywhere. There’s no room for isolationists when tackling global epidemics.
The second big lesson is that the strongest defence against any outbreak is investment in better health systems everywhere. Advances in medicine and new vaccines, treatments and practices are all vital weapons — but they will never be a silver bullet. They rely on sufficient numbers of properly trained and committed medical staff, well-equipped hospitals, efficient delivery and procurement systems that get medicines where they are needed on time. That’s why programmes such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance are so important. They not only protect millions of people from preventable diseases through vaccines, but they also build up the health systems that make it possible for countries to fight epidemics.
As coronavirus spreads, we’re reminded that global health security is only as strong as its weakest link. Failing to build up strong and efficient health systems around the world reduces our capacity to respond to diseases as swiftly and effectively as possible — which, in today’s hyper connected world, ultimately increases the risk to people everywhere.