On Friday, August 8 the World Health Organization declared Ebola a global health emergency as more than 1,000 lives have already been claimed by the pandemic that is being characterized as an “unusually tragic outbreak.” But what does this really mean, and how prepared should we be?
1. The term “Global Health Emergency” has only been used twice before this.
Once with the outbreak of H1N1 swine flu in 2009 and once this past May after the deadly re-emergence of polio, this most recent global health emergency notice is only the third of its kind. While many are criticizing lack of action on the ground, others have nonetheless supported WHO’s decision to label the outbreak as such, hoping it will trigger a psychological response.
2. Just like the title implies, the label of “Global Health Emergency” has no border restrictions and applies internationally.
Defined as “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of the disease,” global health emergencies should be taken as an international precaution, and as a chance for the world to come together to combat the disease.
3. Some critics say the declaration doesn’t actually save lives.
While declaring the disease an emergency could bring in more foreign aid, some health experts, such as Dr. David Heymann, are less optimistic the label actually saves lives. While statements themselves certainly won’t eradicate an entire disease, others hope the classification of the disease will alert the public — and governments — to act more quickly.
4. We have been planning to respond to public health emergencies for years.
The Centers for Disease Control and The Bioterrorism and Public Health Preparedness Program have been preparing for years how to properly respond to public health emergencies. While these and many other programs are still testing these measures, we have made significant headway in responding to pandemics and other incidents.
5. Global Health Emergencies are bad for our economy.
Since the past quarter century, more than $9.5 billion has been spent on polio eradication — just one emergency over the past few years. In fact, the WHO stated that failure to eliminate polio could result in “the most expensive public health failure in history.”
6. We’ve only fully wiped out a disease once.
While modern technology has done wonders to help limit the spread of certain diseases, we have actually only completely wiped out a disease once: smallpox, in 1979. By taking serum from a cow affected with the disease and injecting it into humans, Edward Jenner started by vaccinating people from poorer countries with fewer health resources and working his way to richer nations — and it worked.
Ebola has hit African countries especially hard, with at least 931 deaths and 1,702 cases in Africa’s Western countries as of August 4. At least two Americans have been affected by the disease, who are being treated with an early vaccination in their home country.
– Nick Magnanti