SARS, bird flu, swine flu, Ebola, Zika. It is hard to believe that not too long ago, there was an idea that infectious diseases had been largely conquered, at least in principle. Then along came AIDS, and now with more people on the planet and more travelling, new infections are actually becoming more common.
Ebola has infected almost 30,000 people, killing 11,000, and inflicted an economic cost of more than $2 billion on some of the poorest countries in the world. SARS infected far fewer – 8,000, and killed 800, but because it hit richer places, it cost more than $40 billion. A recent report on global health risks put potential global losses from pandemics at around $60bn a year.
America’s National Academy of Medicine suggests that $4.5bn a year, about 3% of what the rich world spends on development aid, invested in medical research, public health services and better emergency co-ordination could significantly strengthen our defences against disease.
More effective health systems would help fight illnesses such as tuberculosis that costs perhaps $12bn a year, and malaria which probably costs several times that. Better research could help find vaccines to treat diseases that at the moment are mercifully rare, but which could become pandemics, such as Lassa fever and Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever.