Before the Spread: How the U.S. is Working to Stop the Next Ebola

April 7, 2017 By Elizabeth Holtan

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Infectious diseases don’t need passports. And pandemics don’t respect borders, nationalities, or rule of law.

Take Ebola, for example, which spread rapidly — and fatally — across West Africa, starting in 2014. The disease traveled by land from Guinea, crossing borders to infect urban and rural communities alike across Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, and Mali, and continued on to hitch rides with travelers flying to Nigeria and the United States.

About three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases come from animal hosts. And increasing populations across West Africa have led to closer contact between humans and animals, putting people at greater risk to emerging disease threats.

And with over two billion airline passengers flying each year, new diseases can travel faster and farther than ever.

But there’s a key moment in the potential journey of a virus that can determine whether or not an outbreak will actually occur. When a disease can be identified in animal populations, but hasn’t yet spread to humans, we have the greatest chance of stopping an outbreak before it happens.

Many U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programs don’t often make headlines — for good reason. Just as we don’t hear about the wars that were prevented, we don’t read about the diseases that were stopped before they became the next Ebola, bird flu, or Zika — debilitating, fatal pandemics that caused severe burdens on livelihoods and economies and posed threats to global security and stability.

The USAID-funded Preparedness and Response project, or P&R, is active in 16 countries, including Uganda, to establish the coordination required across many sectors to prevent, detect, and respond to emerging diseases and other international threats like antimicrobial resistance. In November 2016, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Mission to Uganda partnered with the Government of Uganda to launch the country’s “One Health” platform, with P&R support.

The One Health platform empowers Uganda to “better address the serious health challenges that can impact the stability and security of people across the globe,” as U.S. Ambassador Deborah Malac remarked. It’s ultimately aimed at helping Ugandans and Americans stop diseases before they become harmful to humans.

The worst of the Ebola outbreak is over, for now, and America’s role in the response was largely hailed as a success. But there’s a reason the three most severely affected countries, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, were the hardest hit. These nations, having only recently emerged from long periods of conflict and instability, are rebuilding critical human and infrastructural resources.

The systemic factors that enable diseases to spread often fly under the radar, but addressing them is critical in the fight against new global health threats. One way to do that is to play out what might happen in the case of an outbreak — and imagining the spread of a new pandemic isn’t just reserved for Hollywood.

In October 2016, the One Health platform of the Government of Cameroon, with the support of P&R, worked with the private sector­ to organize and run a simulation to test public and private sector responses to an outbreak like Ebola in the towns of Douala and Limbe, in advance of the Africa Women Cup of Nations.

Large-scale, international gatherings like soccer tournaments have the potential to spread disease very quickly and therefore can pose a significant public health risk. The simulation identified areas of improvement, helping to strengthen the systems of response — and hopefully, save lives down the line.

Benjamin Franklin’s adage still holds true today: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” U.S. government agencies like USAID, CDC, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) understand that in today’s increasingly interconnected world, diseases don’t respect borders, and preventing outbreaks is critical.

With adequate funding to prevent global health threats before they emerge, the U.S. is working to improve and save lives around the world — keeping Americans healthy and safe, both at home and abroad.

World Health Day is April 7, 2017. Click here to find out more. Special thanks to DAI for contributing to this story.