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UN and WHO 'not fit for purpose' to tackle pandemics

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Global populations are more vulnerable to pandemics now than at any time in history, according to Jeremy Farrar, director of biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust. Increased global air travel and densely concentrated, interconnected populations are breeding new kinds pathogens that could lead to global health crisis.

The biggest increase in air travel is happening between South-East Asia, the world’s most densely populated area, and sub-Saharan Africa as new markets and trade routes are emerging. "This will have huge implications for people and the flow of trade," said Farrar. "But also the movement of rats and carriers of infectious diseases."

From the first discovery of an infectious disease outbreak, "we have a six week window to intervene effectively," Farrar told the audience at WIRED Health 2016. If Ebola had been caught at that early stage, "we would not have had 11,000 deaths and 40,000 cases," he said.

Right now, there are over ten outbreaks of infectious diseases, including Yellow Fever, Dengue and Cholera, that threaten to spill over into epidemics. Despite the increased threat, Farrar said that global institutions such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations "are not fit for the current purposes of the 21st century".

"We are retreating towards some of the horrors of the 20th century and moving away from a desire for global good towards more nationalistic agendas – we should not retreat into nationalism."

"We must also remember that if we do act and we make the right choices, we can stop these [epidemics]," Farrar argued. Between 2000 and 2012, estimated malaria mortality rates fell by 42 per cent, averting potentially 3.3 million deaths. This was due to simple changes such as the introduction of bed nets, better communication and patient education.

Farrar called on the medical community to be open to new ways of thinking and do more to combat these emerging threats. Greater sharing of data, surveillance of diseases as they spread and incentivising work on infectious diseases would leave health agencies better equipped to deal with epidemics. "We are not passive observers," he said, "we can change history."

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