World Leaders Prepare for a Global Pandemic That Could Come ‘Sooner Than We Expect’

Esther Tokpah, 11, an orphan, weeps before her release from an Ebola treatment center in Monrovia, Liberia, in September 2014. She lost both parents to Ebola.
© Michel du Cille/The Washington Post

The government ministers were facing a new infectious disease outbreak. The mysterious virus was sickening and killing people with alarming speed. Some patients had to be placed on ventilators to help them breathe. The new virus seemed resistant to antibiotics and antiviral medicine.

Within a week, officials had closed a major hospital and schools and quarantined thousands of people. Fear and panic spread quickly as people in neighboring countries became infected and died.

That scenario was part of a pandemic simulation held during the World Bank’s annual meeting in Washington this month. It’s not the kind of event that people would typically associate with the World Bank. But it’s the fourth such exercise the bank has helped organize in the past year, reflecting what experts say is the growing awareness outside the traditional global health sector of the increasing threat and economic disruption posed by a global pandemic.

The chaotic and “horrendously inefficient” early response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa was the catalyst for the simulations, said Tim Evans, senior director for health, nutrition and population at the World Bank.

“We realized that people were just making it up as they were going along, including us,” Evans said, referring to the Ebola response. The bank wanted to “move from a history of panic and neglect to one where we’re going to start to prepare much more systematically to be ready for the 100 percent probability we will be dealing with this again,” he said. “Probably sooner than we expect.’”

Outbreaks of life-threatening infectious diseases are spreading faster and with more unpredictability than ever.

An unusually large plague outbreak in Madagascar has killed 106 people since August. About 70 percent of the cases are the more virulent form of pneumonic plague that spreads by coughing, sneezing or spitting and is almost always fatal if untreated with antibiotics.

In Uganda, officials are on high alert because of a recently reported outbreak of the deadly Marburg virus that has killed one person and may have exposed hundreds more at health facilities and during traditional burial ceremonies. Marburg is a highly infectious hemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola and is among the most virulent pathogens known to infect humans.

For the World Bank simulation, organizers looked at the impact on travel and tourism of an outbreak of a mysterious respiratory virus in a hypothetical country. Participants included finance, health and tourism ministers from about a dozen countries, and officials from organizations including the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the International Air Transport Association.

Discussions during the 90-minute session were off the record. But in interviews after the event, organizers said the step-by-step scenario made the theoretical possibility seem very real for participants. In particular, it drove home the need for speedy, accurate information-sharing and strong coordination within and across governments and institutions.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Lena H. Sun