UN: Millions could die from future pandemic unless WHO urgently reforms

Adama Tarawallie holds the head of her husband Ibrahim, 31, an Ebola victim, as they wait to be transported from Devil Hole. © Baz Ratner
A future global epidemic could result in millions of deaths according to a new UN report, which would be far worse than the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa. The study also urges the World Health Organization to reform in order to be ready to combat future crises.

The report, entitled “Protecting Humanity from Future Health Crises,” is particularly relevant following the outbreak of the Zika virus in South and Central America. The study has been critical of the World Health Organization (WHO) and its response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which killed more than 11,000 people.

The UN panel is urging the body to reform in order to prevent future outbreaks, which could have dire consequences, with the report stating that if a highly pathogenic influenza virus was to surface, it could “rapidly result in millions of deaths,” as well as causing “social, economic and political disruption.”

Worryingly still, the report, which has been posted online in advanced, unedited form in the UN’s Daily Journal, mentions that this is “not an unlikely scenario.”

“The high risk of major health crises is widely underestimated, and … the world’s preparedness and capacity to respond is woefully insufficient. Future epidemics could far exceed the scale and devastation of the west Africa Ebola outbreak,” the chair of the panel, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete stated.

The world’s attention is now focused on the Zika virus, which has been spreading from Brazil. Countries in the region have been caught off guard due to a lack of understanding about the disease, which has been linked to thousands of cases of brain damage in new born babies in the region.

A WHO spokeswoman told Reuters that the organization sprang into action following the outbreak of the virus, with the body working together to try and combat its effects.

She added that the WHO "is fully committed to urgently reforming our emergency work to address all emergency health risks and events in a predictable, capable, dependable, flexible and accountable manner.”

Among the recommendations from the UN panel was the need for the WHO to build a new Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response, which "must have real command and control capability, access to specialized human and operational resources to execute a health response.”

The report also mentioned that there needs to be greater coordination in fighting global outbreaks and is "convinced that there is no substitute for having a single global health leader" and that "the World Health Organization should become this leader.”

Since the turn of the century, the world has witnessed a number of epidemics, which include four major outbreaks of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in Saudi Arabia and South Korea, the pandemics of H1N1 and H5N1 influenza, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The report says that these are all a “stark reminder” of the threat posed by emerging communicable diseases to humanity.

Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust charity has welcomed the moves put forward by the panel, while also stating that there is a general consensus that action needs to be taken and that organizations are learning from the mistakes that were made during the Ebola outbreak.

"Epidemic and pandemic diseases are among the greatest of all threats to human health and security, against which we have for too long done too little to prepare," he said, as cited by Reuters.

"After four inquiries into the preventable tragedy of Ebola, there is now a strong consensus about what must be done. The WHO’s leadership and member states must make 2016 the year of decision and act now."