Before the current crisis, there had been twenty-four outbreaks of Ebola in seven African countries since 1976. In these earlier outbreaks, the total number of cases never exceeded 500 and the highest number of deaths was 260 in one case. The idea of working on preventive and curative treatments for Ebola was buried in a bottom drawer, relegated to inaction by a dysfunctional model of pharmaceutical innovation based on incentives unlikely ever to address the problem of a rare disease affecting people in a remote place where there would be little market for any eventual products.
The idea of working on preventive and curative treatments for Ebola was buried in a bottom drawer, relegated to inaction by a dysfunctional model of pharmaceutical innovationEven so, many people feared that the leap from an isolated outbreak to a regional epidemic was only a matter of time. This time round, at the time of writing, Ebola has already affected 13,241 people and claimed 4,950 lives in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone—three countries with extremely weak healthcare systems—and has put the public health authorities on maximum alert in half of the world. Many more people will be infected and die before we even start to see the light at the end of this tunnel.
The current Ebola crisis sharply illustrates the risks of global health in the 21st century at a time when the fragility of national health care systems and the distortions arising from the prevailing model for pharmaceutical innovation extend far beyond national borders. Today, diseases endemic in poor countries, such as malaria, coexist with a global phenomenon of poverty-induced disease associated less with geography and more with people's lack of protection against risks.
Today, diseases endemic in poor countries, such as malaria, coexist with a global phenomenon of poverty-induced disease associated less with geography and more with people's lack of protection against risksIf we accept the truth of this assertion, international cooperation is much more than an ethical exercise driven by circumstance. It is, first and foremost, an exchange of knowledge in which both parties have an interest, albeit in differing degrees. Since thousands of people from Latin America who have Chagas disease have come to live in European and American cities, investing in treatments that will slow down or halt the progression of this disease, while directly benefiting those affected, will also result in considerable savings for the health systems of all the countries where they live.
Moreover, even small amounts of development aid can act as a catalyst for local resources and capacities. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa—such as Mozambique, Nigeria and Angola—have natural resources and a growing middle class that can contribute their share to the progress of the country. Aid supports good governance that optimises the common interest. It strengthens control mechanisms and establishes common comparable rules for an economic system that has been global for a long time.
And finally, cooperation is a cheap and effective way to build the reputation of the donor country and also fulfils that country’s obligations to the international community and to itself. Once again, the Ebola crisis helps us to understand the strong leadership our planet needs today. You don’t need a seat on the UN Security Council to understand that the problems of West Africa are everyone’s problems.