Ebola crisis provides framework for responding to outbreaks like Zika virus

As world leaders grapple with containing the Zika virus, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa provides valuable lessons for how to respond to other infectious disease epidemics, according to a policy report published by researchers at Princeton University and the Wellcome Trust.  

Rebuilding local health care infrastructures, improving capacity to respond more quickly to outbreaks and considering multiple perspectives across disciplines during decision-making processes are among the key recommendations the authors propose. 

The report, published in Science, states the World Health Organization (WHO) must again become the respected global health body with a clear mandate to provide global health leadership. This can only be made possible with binding commitments from the international community alongside an ability and willingness of WHO to lead, the researchers conclude.  

The report is based on a recent international conference organized by Princeton  — "Modern Plagues: Lessons Learned from the Ebola Crisis," held in Dublin in November 2015 as the third Princeton-Fung Global Forum. The report was written by conference participants Janet Currie and Bryan Grenfell, both based at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust. Currie is the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs and chair of the Department of Economics, and Grenfell is the Kathryn Briger and Sarah Fenton Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs. 

"We hope that the Ebola crisis will provide the impetus to change the ways in which we prepare for and respond to epidemics, especially as new threats like Zika virus continue to emerge," the researchers wrote. 

The researchers' recommendations are as follows:

  • Strengthen local health care. During the Ebola epidemic, workers on the ground bore the brunt of the outbreak. More than 800 health care workers were infected, and 500 workers died. Therefore, strengthening and rebuilding these local health care infrastructures is the key to containing future outbreaks. This can be done by building trust within the health care system as well as political structures.
  • Improve international response. The first cases of Ebola were confirmed in March 2014, and yet the WHO did not declare it a public health emergency until August 2014. The WHO must be able to respond more quickly and with greater impacts. Two ways to achieve this improved response are to set up a dedicated Center for Health Emergency Preparedness and Response, and to coordinate research during the time between epidemics as well as during outbreaks.
  • Consider multiple perspectives. The Ebola crisis shows that social structures, living environments and human behavior all influence the course of an epidemic. Therefore, moving beyond disciplinary silos is essential. One example that illustrates this importance involves the development of safe, effective and deployable vaccines. A recent Ebola vaccine in Guinea has been successful, but it could have been deployed earlier. Developing an international cooperative to support the development and licensing of vaccines is an urgent priority.
  • Act synergistically. History shows that the best results occur when international bodies work in collaboration with local governments and health systems with a shared agenda in mind. Providing basic health services at a community level is the key to establishing trust, improving surveillance and creating capacity to mount a rapid response. 

The article, "Beyond Ebola," was published online Feb. 18 as a perspective piece in Science. 

The Princeton-Fung Global Forum is a series of meetings that Princeton University hosts with the help of a generous gift from William Fung, a Princeton alumnus and former trustee, and group chairman of Li & Fung. The Princeton-Fung Global Forums bring together colleagues from around the world to share views from a wide range of disciplinary and professional perspectives. 

The first Princeton-Fung Global Forum, "The Future of the City," took place in Shanghai in 2013. The second forum on "The Future of Higher Education" was held in Paris in 2014. The next forum is scheduled for spring 2017 in Berlin and will focus on cybertechnology.