Preparing for Outbreak: Fighting the World’s Deadliest Diseases | Freethink


“Disease X” “Something called ‘Disease X'” “…called ‘Disease X'” [Narrator] There was massive hype about ‘Disease X.’ Headlines predicted capital-G, Global pandemic. The only problem? Disease X doesn’t really exist. If you want to understand Disease X, you have to understand this– the Blueprint of Priority Diseases. Okay, so it doesn’t actually look like this. It’s actually just this very small part of this very normal-sized piece of paper. Since 2015, the World Health Organization has gathered a list of diseases. Diseases that both cause the most harm, and we’re the most unprepared for. Like Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever. Rift Valley Fever. SARS, and ebola. The press got excited because of the last name on this most recent list. Disease X. This makes sense–it’s a snappy headline. But those headlines often miss the point. Because Disease X already happened. Zika is a Disease X. [Newscaster] like Lyme and Zika, which have seen a dramatic rise since 2004. Ebola is a Disease X. -“…the outbreak response failed to see some fairly plain writing on the wall.” ‘X’ is just anything we didn’t see coming. I think that ‘Disease X’ always has this connotation… I’m the generation that still remembers Planet–you know, ‘Invasion from Planet X’ This is Dr. Ko. Dr. Ko was one of the 30 or so scientists who put together the WHO list with ‘Disease X’ in it. So it’s not only the fact that a disease will happen, or ‘Disease X’ will occur. How do we mobilize, or how do we prepare for them? Exactly, right. [Narrator] And that’s what the blueprint and Disease X are supposed to be. A way to prioritize what diseases we’re not ready for, so when something bad hits, we’ve already done the ten or twenty years of research & development needed to respond immediately. When Ebola had its biggest outbreak ever, over 28,000 cases popped up. With over 11,000 dead in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Enter the WHO, whose work with government and private companies resulted in the first ever fully effective vaccine against Ebola. -Many of these are epidemics, so you not only have to get all the wheels moving, but you also have to get out there and test those vaccines, and test all those drugs while there are still cases. When the cases go away–and this is what happened with the Ebola outbreak, we had a large Ebola outbreak, by the time the vaccine came out we actually had one vaccine that was able to be tested but others that wouldn’t because the epidemic had gone away. It’s the same situation which had happened with Zika. [Narrator] Take Ebola, for example. It can be transmitted from animals to humans, then spark an epidemic because it can jump from human to human. Plus its high mortality rate means that some 30-50% of cases ultimately die from it. Something like HIV on the other hand doesn’t make the list. Not because it still isn’t incredibly important, but because we have a game plan of what to do when outbreaks occur. We have drugs. We have mechanisms of funding research. We have preventative measures. That means for the WHO, a disease like that doesn’t need to be on a list like this. That said, there are limitations in the process. Do you prioritize a disease like SARS, that has only happened once in the last 20 years versus a disease that’s happening every year, affecting a lot of people? How do you weight the economic impact vs. for example, loss of life? Diseases are expensive. In 2015 Ebola cost 2.2 billion dollars in GDP loss in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. SARS cost China an estimated $25 billion dollars in tourism. Making their growth rate a full one to two percentage points lower than it would have been if the SARS outbreak had not occurred. It’s a complicated and delicate process. That’s a lot of accountability to place in the hands of the 30 or so scientists who ultimately decide what makes the list. At the end of the day though, diseases hit fast and they hit hard. It’s tools like the blueprint that help nations and the medical marketplace hit back, by shedding light on which diseases need the most investment. Without something like the blueprint, it’d be significantly harder to organize around the world’s most dangerous health threats. And chances are that the loss of life, money, and health care security would be that much more devastating without it. Hi, everyone! Thank you so much to the researchers who took the time to talk to me about this story. We did reach out to the WHO for comment, but they’re busy dealing with an Ebola outbreak in the DRC right now– which is fair, Ebola is important. If you’re curious about how I got into the weeds on this story and the methodology for how it actually happens, I’ve left all of my resources for research in the description box below. Like and subscribe for more great content next time. Bye!


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