scorecardThe Ebola outbreak is over, but the crisis exposed a much scarier problem
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The Ebola outbreak is over, but the crisis exposed a much scarier problem

The Ebola outbreak is over, but the crisis exposed a much scarier problem
LifeScience4 min read

A French Red Cross team picks up a suspected Ebola case from the centre of Forecariah January 30, 2015. REUTERS/Misha Hussain/Files

Thomson Reuters

A French Red Cross team picks up a suspected Ebola case in Guinea.

The world is rejoicing today that the Ebola crisis is officially over.

But the outbreak revealed something troubling: The global health system is broken.

The World Health Organization declared West Africa free of Ebola on January 14. In the two years that the outbreak raged, more than 28,500 people were infected, and 11,300 died.

By the time the world responded to the Ebola crisis, it was too late to contain it quickly, and thousands of deaths occurred that experts say could have been prevented.

In November, an independent panel of 22 Ebola experts and policy leaders published a report in The Lancet that called for sweeping reforms.

During the outbreak, they argued, national health systems weren't equipped to handle such a crisis. Global leaders disagreed on key decisions like travel bans, and governments and international agencies like the World Health Organization didn't communicate properly, which led to panic and confusion around the world.

These failures are bigger than Ebola: They exposed a global health system that isn't equipped to handle a similar outbreak in the future - or one that may be even worse.

"It was very clear to us that the world had really failed," Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute and co-chair of the report, told Tech Insider in November. "We saw this as a very important problem - not just because it was such a devastating epidemic for people in West Africa - but also because the next one could be far more disastrous."

How to fix a broken global health system

If the changes recommended in the report aren't made to our vulnerable and unprepared health system, Jha said, a number of worst-case scenarios could occur.

For example: The world could be hit with another outbreak that spirals out of control, but this time the virus could be the flu, which is much more contagious than Ebola. Since humans are coming into contact with so many more animals due to deforestation, a virus could emerge that the world has never seen before. Or, Jha said, bioterrorists could release a dangerously designed virus that elicits an outbreak.


John Moore/Getty

If the world had more effective treatments for or vaccines against Ebola, perhaps the outbreak wouldn't have been so bad.

The authors of the Lancet report suggested a number of changes that need to be made to health systems and authorities around the world, particularly to the World Health Organization. And they do so without requesting any additional funding for the WHO, Jha notes, because one of the problems they identify is the agency's inefficiency.

The panel's recommendations include encouraging countries to report outbreaks sooner, incentivizing companies to develop diagnostic tests and treatments for neglected diseases like Ebola, and creating a centralized group within the WHO that handles global outbreaks, among several others.

Moving forward

The panel is hoping that the devastation of the Ebola outbreak will encourage actual change to happen soon.

"Our primary goal is to convince high-level political leaders worldwide to make necessary and enduring changes to better prepare for future outbreaks while memories of the human costs of inaction remain vivid and fresh," they wrote in the report.

ebola disinfecting children health workers

Misha Hussain/REUTERS

Children in Guinea get their feet disinfected by Red Cross workers on January 30, 2015.

Everyday citizens can help by encouraging their leaders to make these changes, Jha said, and to get informed about these issues to keep from overreacting and supporting measures like closing our borders. That's not effective in a globalized world, Jha noted.

"This is not a problem just for people in West Africa, or in India, or in China - this is truly a global problem, and we've got to fix it," he said. "Fixing it in the middle of the next epidemic won't work. Now is the window to fix it, and I think we can."

Ending the Ebola outbreak is an incredible feat that should be celebrated, Emmanuel d'Harcourt, senior health director of the International Rescue Committee, said in a press release. But it shouldn't make us complacent.

"Health workers cannot be ready for Ebola if we don't address the problems that made the countries vulnerable in the first place," he said in the statement. "We know that stronger health systems" - the US, for example - "were able to stop the spread of the virus quickly. It is up to us to act."

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