A PANDEMIC of a new, highly infectious, airborne virus that will threaten millions of lives is “inevitable”, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.
The warning, issued on Monday of last week, came in the week of the first cases in China of a pneumonia-like illness since identified as a coronavirus. As of Wednesday this week, China has confirmed 400 cases and nine deaths. The US announced its first case on Tuesday, and the following day the UK announced that it would begin monitoring flights from China.
Preparing for epidemics is one of the 13 “urgent health challenges” that it set out last week. “Countries invest heavily in protecting their people from terrorist attacks, but not against the attack of a virus, which could be far more deadly, and far more damaging economically and socially,” the director-general of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said. “Health security cannot be a matter for ministries of health alone.” The organisation is calling for “more international co-operation, greater domestic focus on preparedness, and increased funding”.
Other challenges listed are anti-microbial resistance (which “threatens to send modern medicine back decades to the pre-antibiotic era, when even routine surgeries were dangerous”), and the need to increase public trust in medicine. WHO notes that the anti-vaccination movement has been “a significant factor in the rise of deaths in preventable diseases”. Measles was responsible for 140,000 deaths last year.
The list highlights the connection between health and other policy areas, noting, for example, that the same emissions as cause global warming are responsible for more than one quarter of deaths from heart attack, stroke, lung cancer, and chronic respiratory disease. Conflict is forcing record numbers of people out of their homes, “leaving tens of millions of people with little access to health care”.
It also draws attention to an 18-year difference in life expectancy between rich and poor countries; the fact that one in four health facilities lack basic water services; and the calculation that one third of the global population lacks access to medicines, vaccines, diagnostic tools, and other essential health products. Health-worker shortages have been recorded all over the world — 18 million more will be needed by 2030, mainly in low- and middle-income countries
Harnessing new technologies can “solve many problems”, the report says. But “without a deeper understanding of their ethical and social implications, these new technologies, which include the capacity to create new organisms, could harm the people they are intended to help.”
The list “reflects a deep concern that leaders are failing to invest enough resources in core health priorities and systems”, Dr Ghebreyesus said.