In today’s interconnected world, disease knows no borders. A new infection can spread from a remote village to a major global metropolis within days. As global air travel continues expanding, unprecedented population growth and climate change exert new pressures, emerging infectious diseases pose an ever-growing threat to global health security. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of preparedness and response to such threats. To effectively respond to emerging global health threats, it is crucial to understand the nature of these threats, the factors that contribute to their emergence, and the strategies that can be implemented to mitigate their impact.
According to the World Health Organization, around 75% of new or emerging human infectious diseases between 1980-2013 originated in animals. Zoonotic pathogens like Ebola, SARS, MERS, avian influenza and Zika jumped from animal hosts to humans, catching the world off guard with their rapid spread. While scientists constantly monitor animal viruses with pandemic potential, the sheer diversity of pathogens means many threats go unnoticed until an outbreak occurs.
One of the key factors contributing to the emergence of global health threats is the rapid movement of people and goods around the world. This increased mobility has led to the rapid spread of infectious diseases, such as Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19, which can quickly become global pandemics. Climate change and environmental degradation are also contributing to the emergence of new infectious diseases, as well as the re-emergence of old ones. For example, deforestation and urbanization have increased the risk of exposure to zoonotic diseases, which are transmitted from animals to humans.
To effectively respond to emerging global health threats, it is essential to have a coordinated and comprehensive approach. This includes strong surveillance and early warning systems, effective communication and collaboration between countries and international organizations, and a robust public health infrastructure. Preparedness measures, such as stockpiling medical supplies and developing vaccines and therapeutics, are also critical to ensuring a timely response.
When outbreaks do emerge, the initial response is crucial. A slow or ineffective response allows infections to establish themselves, and countries must then mount more resource-intensive efforts to contain wider spread. The 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic revealed severe gaps, as it took months for an adequate containment effort in West Africa. Over 28,000 cases and 11,000 deaths later, the epidemic was finally brought under control. Recent analysis shows that if Ebola response had been only 3 weeks quicker, cases could have been reduced by over 90%.
In addition to these measures, it is important to address the underlying social, economic, and environmental factors that contribute to the emergence of global health threats. This includes investing in health systems and infrastructure, promoting sustainable development, and addressing the root causes of inequalities that affect access to healthcare and increase vulnerability to infectious diseases.
To build preparedness, the WHO established the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network to rapidly deploy personnel and resources. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations stimulates development of vaccines for diseases with epidemic potential. National health systems are also focusing emergency preparedness efforts, such as establishing multi-agency command centers, stockpiling medical countermeasures and training professionals. Regional disease surveillance networks increase visibility of outbreak threats.
While improvements have been made, challenges remain. Underfunded public health systems leave many countries ill-equipped for outbreak response. Stigma and community resistance can hamper control. Pathogen mutation risks recurring outbreaks escaping immunity. Urgent action is still needed to close surveillance gaps, strengthen health systems globally and promote international cooperation to safeguard against future pandemics. Concerted global efforts to rapidly identify and curb emerging disease threats remain key to protecting health security in an era of increased sharing and interconnection between all nations of the world.