WHILE IT has not gained much attention in the United States, Brazil has been struck in recent months with an outbreak of Zika virus that has infected hundreds of thousands of people. Most of the time the symptoms are mild and flu-like, but in some cases health officials say the virus has led to birth defects in babies born to women who were infected in pregnancy. The virus is spread by small insects such as mosquitoes or fleas, and there is no known vaccine to prevent infection.
The Zika story might seem easy to dismiss if one is not living in Brazil. Is this just another unpleasant headline about misery far away?
Not quite. In the aftermath of the mishandled and tardy reaction to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in which more than 11,000 people died, an independent and authoritative commission was set up in the United States to look ahead and draw lessons from this and other recent waves of infectious disease. The 17-member Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future issued its final report on Jan. 13, and the panel’s conclusions are a wake-up call about the threat of pandemic disease that could originate almost anywhere and spread everywhere. Despite all the advances of science, “the global community has massively underestimated the risks that pandemics present to human life and livelihoods,” the group declared. “There are very few risks facing humankind that threaten loss of life on the scale of pandemics.”
The 1918 influenza pandemic killed anywhere from 50 million to 100 million people; in catastrophic mortality events since 1900, only World War II caused more deaths. Since it first appeared, HIV/AIDS has killed more than 35 million. Although the tolls have been far lower, five outbreaks in the past 15 years have been worrying: severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS; two influenza waves, H5N1 and H1N1; Ebola; and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS.
As the world becomes more globalized with the movement of goods and people, as climate change disrupts the environment, and as pathogens move between humans and animals, cocktails of infectious disease will form, spread and sicken. Already a dozen cases of Zika virus have been reported in the United States, so far only among people who had traveled outside the country. “The threat from infectious diseases is growing,” the panel warns, adding that “the conditions for infectious disease emergence and contagion are more dangerous than ever.” Moreover, “further outbreaks of new, dormant, or even well-known diseases are a certainty.”
The commission insists that pandemic risks must be treated not as distant, unavoidable possibilities but as real national security threats. Just as nations invest in military preparedness, the panel says, so should they confront disease. In fact, this has been long neglected in many places. The panel calls for measures to bolster public health systems in individual countries; creating a rapid-response capability; strengthening the World Health Organization; and funding research and development of new therapies, all for about $4.5 billion a year. That’s the equivalent of three Powerball drawings like the one on the day of the panel’s report.