Can We Prevent the Next Epidemic?

Five steps to prepare for infectious disease outbreaks

Disease epidemics have a long history of threatening the health of our world. From the bubonic plague of the 14th century to the emergence of HIV in the 1980’s and more recently the Ebola outbreak, epidemic level diseases have caused tragic devastation to people and populations. Through science, preparation, and cooperation we can plan for the next epidemic and be prepared when it strikes.

An effective global response to infectious disease outbreaks requires new forms of public-private cooperation.

Opportunities to innovate and collaborate in the context of epidemic preparedness are numerous and can be implemented with lessons learned from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

We’ve learnt from the history of polio eradication that it takes much more than the creation of an effective vaccine to end a disease. Once a vaccine is ready, there is still a big gap to fill in terms of distribution, social mobilization, advocacy, diplomacy, global coordination, health worker support and training.

Through working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and our partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative we can apply several best practices to prepare for the next epidemic.

  • Clearly defined roles — Rotary’s work on advocacy, financial support and assisting the laboratory networks is complemented by core partners. The World Health Organization provides technical guidance, and UNICEF aids the effort through social mobilization activities and its ability to procure vaccine of high quality at low cost and deliver it in a timely fashion. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides technical support, matching funds and invests in innovative research while the CDC works with WHO to strategize implementation.
  • Coordination and collaboration — The establishment of Interagency Coordinating Committees for polio eradication brings stakeholders from different fields together and defines roles based on the best fit for their attributes. This committee includes representatives of the relevant ministries of health, donor agencies for each country, core partners and other stakeholders.
  • Emergency funding mechanisms — Rotary awards Rapid Response Grants of $500,000 for immediate funding of special polio emergencies. This type of unique flexibility has helped the program greatly in Somalia, Myanmar and Sudan, and recently in the Middle East, to help prevent a polio outbreak in Iraq and Syria in 2013 from spreading further. These grants also act as a catalyst, encouraging governments and other donors to fund emergency responses.
  • Centralized Emergency Operations Center — Ebola was swiftly countered in Nigeria thanks to swift repurposing of the polio emergency operations center, well-trained staff members, and use of surveillance assets. While West African countries suffered from thousands of Ebola cases, Nigeria had just 20.
  • Advocates at a local level In the midst of a pandemic, it’s critical that you are able to reach out to communities and build their trust in the response. The polio program has an extensive network of community and religious leaders, from the most prominent Islamic scholars globally to religious leaders in each neighborhood, to ensure families understand why they need to vaccinate their kids.

Innovation and collaboration will continue to serve as our best weapons in global health. Through strategies based on these best practices and key learnings we can be better positioned to respond to the next epidemic and save countless lives.


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