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Learning from Ebola: Lessons for Future Epidemics

Over a year after the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus that claimed more than 11,000 lives across three continents, a recent independent research study has concluded various public health policies to prevent the spread of similar epidemics in the future. The study, sponsored by the Harvard Global Health Institute and other research institutions, recommends ten actionable policies that “provide a vision for a more robust, resilient global system able to manage infectious disease outbreaks.”

Notably, the study calls for major reforms within the World Health Organization (WHO) including a new director and creation of a separate division for attending infectious diseases. The WHO was criticized last year for declaring Ebola as a global health emergency nearly five months after the virus first emerged in West Africa. The study assumes international cooperation and assistance of the WHO, as well as adherence to revamped public health guidelines. Additionally, the WHO would be increasingly governed by international oversight to improve accountability, as shown below:

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The article draws on numerous materials covered in class, including game theory and disease models. Rejuvenating the WHO would require billions of dollars and international support, meaning major countries must see benefit in contributing to the organization. Whereas poor countries prone to such outbreaks are more likely to support fundamental improvements, their lack of funding lays the burden on more affluent nations who must recognize the benefits of such policies.

In examining the public health implications of this research, the study relies on reducing both p and k variables in lowering the R0, or measure of persistence, of a future epidemic. As noted throughout the recommendations, a revitalized WHO would be able to improve and promote sanitation in countries prone to outbreak, as well as enact quarantines in the event a red flag is raised. While enacting either of these measures alone would reduce R0, implementing policies to address both the probability someone is infected (p) and the number of paths it can take to get to a given person (k) are sure to reduce the harm and spread of the disease. Based on these findings, it would behoove international governments to consider these proposals as a means to establish more effective systems at fighting future outbreaks.



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November 2015