Written before the Ebola outbreak, an excellent article on global pandemics on futureagenda.org predicts that there will be two or three global pandemics in our decade, outlining the development and progress of the diseases, and suggesting approaches.
The three primary reasons for global concern over pandemics: 1) the speed at which pandemics can spread around the world has significantly accelerated due to increasing mass air travel; 2) the consequential time available to track the source and initial progress is decreasing; and 3) the capability to get the right drugs into the right place at the right time is not necessarily up to the challenge.
A core problem with pandemics, it notes, is that ‘they often arise in regions with low levels of public health and they rapidly spread across the world to more advanced countries’. It is highly unusual for one to start in, say, the US or Europe. The 2009 swine flu pandemic started in Mexico and H1N1 patient zero was found in the village of La Gloria, Veracruz, next to a large industrial pig farm. There is particularly high risk from people and animals in many parts of the world sharing the same limited water sources.
Another critical issue is that the rate at which a virus variant can develop is faster than the speed at which new vaccines can be developed. Though this is more true of new flu strains than Ebola, pandemics are often caused by new strains of virus and so need a new antiviral vaccine. Typically, creating the new vaccine takes around six months and so there is a significant gap between pandemic outbreak and treatment availability.
We are not sure that having our body temperatures monitored by satellite via our cell phones is an answer, as the article suggests. But according to the WHO, 57 countries, mostly in the developing world, suffer under a critical shortfall in healthcare workers. Strengthening the health systems and information capacity in the areas most likely to be “Ground Zero” for the next global pandemic is a good place to start, perhaps using those smart phones to get critical health training and information on the ground in the developing countries where they are most needed.