Severe outbreaks of infectious diseases could pose more of a risk to the global economy than wars or financial crises, but the world is largely unprepared for them, says a new report.
The study, released Wednesday, says infectious diseases are improperly viewed strictly as health issues, rather than as potential threats to security or economic stability. The report comes from the Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future, a research group that lists the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development and several others as sponsors.
The study says that another global pandemic on the scale of the 1918 influenza outbreak, which killed between 50 million and 100 million people, could cost the global economy an average loss of more than $60 billion a year.
But governments spend little preventing the outbreaks of disease compared with money spent on national security and financial crises.
"We have not done nearly enough to prevent or prepare for such potential pandemics," the commission's chair, Peter Sands, wrote in the preface to the report. "While there are certainly gaps in our scientific defenses, the bigger problem is that leaders at all levels have not been giving these threats anything close to the priority they demand. Ebola and other outbreaks revealed gaping holes in preparedness, serious weaknesses in response, and a range of failures of global and local leadership. This is the neglected dimension of global security."
Despite advances in disease research and medicine, disease researchers and public health experts believe the risks of pandemics are growing as the world becomes more connected through travel, trade and communication.
The report estimates that about $4.5 billion per year — about 65 cents per person — "could better protect everyone in the world from such risks."
About $3.4 billion of that would go to upgrading health systems in poorer countries. another $1 billion would go toward medical research and development, and the remainder would provide offices and contingency funds at the United Nations and the World Bank set aside for preventing or responding to crises.
The report outlines several recommendations for the United Nations, the G-7 and G-20 countries, and other international organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Among other things, the commission recommends that the World Health Organization set up a system of benchmarks for evaluating public health systems in various countries, and that the World Bank and other donors supply funding to help countries meet pandemic prevention goals.
Most of the proposed deadlines for implementing these recommendations span the next five years.
The report makes the case that epidemics in what the report calls "failed or fragile" countries pose greater direct threats to the larger world than financial or economic problems in those same states, and that particular concern should be paid to controlling disease in unstable regions or war zones.
Large "once-in-a-hundred years" pandemics are not the only outbreaks that can be damaging. Smaller outbreaks can also have a tremendous impact. An influenza outbreak in 1958 was smaller than that of 1918, but it still shaved 3.1 percent off global GDP, said the report. And while Ebola has never reached pandemic levels, it so far has still killed 11,000 people, and cost approximately $2 billion.
"While there is a high degree of uncertainty," the report said, "the commission's own modeling suggests that we are more likely than not to see at least one pandemic over the next 100 years, and there is at least a 20 percent chance of seeing four or more."
Other sponsors of the commission include the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Ming Wai Lau, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and Wellcome Trust.