A pandemic is a global disease outbreak that represents a top global catastrophic risk. Influenza (flu), for example, transmits readily and can spread fast. Every year, up to 500,000 people die from flu. In years when pandemic flu occurs, the toll can rise well into the millions. The 1918 pandemic flu, the most severe of the four flu pandemics in the last 100 years, infected up to 40% of some national populations and killed 50–100 million people.
Pathogens with pandemic potential continue to emerge, and most of them are of animal origin (zoonotic). They include, for example, Ebola, H5N1 avian flu, H7N9 avian flu, HIV/AIDS, and two kinds of coronavirus: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). In 2008, the World Bank estimated that a severe flu pandemic could result in $3 trillion in global economic losses, equivalent to 4.8% of gross domestic product (GDP). Most of the losses would not be caused by disease directly, but rather by consumer reactions, labor shortages and cascading failures in economic and financial sectors.
The U.S. government has warned of the potential for a severe flu pandemic to impact global security and stability. Every year, 2.3 billion human infections occur in developing countries by zoonotic diseases. The burden on the poor is formidable, as they tend to live close to animals in communities with inadequate veterinary and human public health services. Such diseases diminish livelihoods, nutrition, food security, trade, and assets of poor households. Reducing this burden is a global development imperative. Increasing global pandemic prevention and preparedness is essential to achieving the global goals of ending extreme poverty by 2030 and boosting shared prosperity.
Managing pandemic risk is important for all countries, but especially so for poor and fragile states, where a severe pandemic would result in significant harm to population health, economies, and communities.. Pandemic prevention requires health systems with strong core public health functionality (veterinary and human) to detect contagion early, ensure correct diagnoses, and respond rapidly to stop the contagion from spreading.
The World Bank has estimated the cost of this essential, permanent, global infrastructure at $3.4 billion per year in all developing countries. The expected benefit of better preparedness is at least $37 billion per year, making such infrastructure a profitable use of public funds. The economic rates of return to investments in public health and strong health systems range from 50% to 123% per year, depending on disease risk.
Yet, even as the threat posed by avian flu and other zoonotic diseases remains, country and donor investments in pandemic prevention and preparedness have decreased markedly in recent years. The 2013-15 Ebola crisis is a reminder of the price of neglect of core public health functions (both veterinary and human).
Last Updated: Sep 10, 2015