Targeting Outbreaks at Their Source

For 11 months, Ebola has ravaged communities in the northwestern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. More than 1,600 people have lost their lives. To date, it is the second largest outbreak of Ebola in recorded history.

Due to the complexities of putting an end to this outbreak–several factors such as regional instability, presence of warring rebel armies, and enduring misinformation–the World Health Organization issued its fifth ever emergency declaration. (Another of the other four was also for Ebola, in 2014.)

Containing a disease like Ebola, particularly in a war-torn country like the DRC, can be difficult, if not impossible, and the costs of an outbreak are enormous. EcoHealth Alliance research has shown just how costly these outbreaks can be: the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa cost around $10 billion when economic impact from loss of industry and tourism is accounted for. The World Health Organization alone spent $4 million in response to the outbreak. Other disease outbreaks have proven even more costly: SARS cost between $30 and $50 billion, H1N1 between $45 and $55 billion, and H5N1 avian flu cast about $30 billion.

This graphic illustrates the cost of several recent outbreaks. It can be found in a One Health framework published by EcoHealth Alliance in conjunction with the World Bank

Outside of their cost, the impact these outbreaks have–on families, communities, and nation–is very real and often lasts generations. Many of the survivors of Ebola in West Africa are now, years later, experiencing ocular inflammation related to the virus which can cause blindness.

But the way in which outbreaks of zoonotic disease begin belies the scale of their impact. For each outbreak there is an inflection point, often just one single point of contact between a person and an animal. This is enough to transmit the disease and cause a potentially years-long outbreak that claims hundreds of lives and costs millions of dollars.

What if there were a way to prevent those few seconds of contact? A way to prevent a few seconds from causing years of harm and billions of dollars of damage?

Deforestation can be a major driver of disease, as it drives wild animals into closer contact with humans

At EcoHealth Alliance, we are committed to understanding how zoonotic diseases are transmitted and how to prevent their spread. Earlier this year, we announced our team in Liberia have become the first to find Ebola virus in a West African bat. It’s a massively important step in determining how Ebola spreads there. Our work occurs at the intersection of global and local health to prevent epidemics and identify vectors of zoonotic diseases.

By targeting outbreaks at their source, we believe we can prevent the most human suffering. But there are other positive impacts as well. We can help protect animals which may be similarly susceptible to these diseases as well. And by showing how disease spread is driven by human activity like climate change and deforestation, we can make the case for conservation as an imperative to global health security.

We believe that by targeting outbreaks at their source, we can make a healthier world not just for people, but for the animals and ecosystems that share our Earth with us.

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