World not prepared for pandemic that could wipe out millions, experts warn

Up to 80 million people could be wiped out in as little as 36 hours across the world if a global pandemic broke out, health experts have warned. 

Global examples of emerging and re-emerging diseases. Supplied: Global Preparedness Monitoring BoardThe warning by an international panel of health experts says if a pandemic like the Spanish flu was to break out today, up to 80 million people could die across the world.

Faster travel times and a larger global population means the disease could spread anywhere overseas in less than 36 hours and wipe out nearly 5 per cent of the world’s economy, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) said in its first annual report released on Wednesday.

Weakening trust in governments and decreasing vaccination rates could also compound the crisis, it said.

The threat of a pandemic spreading around the globe is a real one. A quick-moving pathogen has the potential to kill tens of millions of people, disrupt economies and destabilise national security, the 15-member board wrote.

According to the report, while governments and international agencies have learned many valuable lessons from previous health emergencies, such as the outbreak of Ebola in Africa, the world remains grossly underprepared for a wider crisis.

The world is at risk. But, collectively, we already have the tools to save ourselves and our economies. What we need is leadership and the willingness to act forcefully and effectively, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), and Elhadj As Sy, the current secretary-general of the International Federation of the Red Cross, said.

Governments should be more proactive in preparing for a global pandemic by investing in their health systems, boosting funding for research and building greater trust with the public, the report says.

For too long, we have allowed a cycle of panic and neglect when it comes to pandemics: we ramp up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly forget about them when the threat subsides, it said.

More than 1400 epidemics in 72 countries were tracked by the WHO between 2011 and 2018 and the threat of a “global health emergency looms large”, it warned.

A fast-moving respiratory disease, similar to the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ that sickened one third of the world’s population and killed as many as 50 million people, would be particularly devastating, it said.

If a similar contagion occurred today with a population four times larger and travel times anywhere in the world less than 36 hours, 50-80 million people could perish.

In addition to the devastating loss of life, the world economy would also suffer, according to the report.

For example, the World Bank estimates a Spanish flu-like pandemic would cost the modern global economy more than A$4.3 trillion dollars.

For comparison, the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic cost about A$58 billion and the Ebola outbreak cost A$77 billion

The GPMB said African countries, such as Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone would be most vulnerable to economic loss, while Australia, the United States and United Kingdom would be less so.

But the impact on international trade chains and tourism would mean both rich and poor countries could feel the pinch.

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