Prepare to Fight Tomorrow’s Ebola

Today, West Africa is being ravaged by the deadliest outbreak of Ebola the world has ever seen. Thousands have been killed, and the death toll is climbing rapidly. Hospitals and clinics in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are overwhelmed. Public health systems in these countries are at their breaking point. Economic losses in West Africa will reach into the billions. The pictures of families suffering in the streets, pleading for help outside overcrowded hospitals, tear at our hearts.

With the economy and the stability of West Africa at risk, President Obama has declared that containing the Ebola epidemic is a top national security priority. The United States is spearheading international efforts to help the countries of West Africa ultimately end this outbreak. Last week, the president dispatched American military personnel to support the massive civilian humanitarian response, build new treatment units for the sick and get needed supplies to the region faster.

But as we aggressively combat the Ebola epidemic, we must also plan urgently for the future. Outbreaks of infectious disease are not confined to Ebola or to Africa. They can originate anywhere and spread quickly. Before one even realizes she’s infected, a person can spread the disease to others. Since viruses and bacteria travel easily across borders, biological threats — whether naturally occurring like Ebola, or the result of a lab accident, or purposefully released as an act terrorism — are a danger to global security. Meeting this threat requires a unified global response.

So far this century, we’ve responded to anthrax attacks, pandemic influenza, SARS, MERS and the looming specter of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. We’ve developed tools and systems that can detect and rapidly respond to outbreaks before they grow into epidemics. Unfortunately, the world is still woefully underprepared to fully address this threat. As of 2012, the vast majority of nations — more than 80% — had failed to meet international requirements set by the World Health Organization to ensure they can address pandemics or bioterrorism.

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That’s why President Obama launched the Global Health Security Agenda earlier this year. Joined by dozens of partners from around the world, America is leading the global community to take concrete steps that will increase the security of our world against infectious diseases. We want to get ahead of this threat so that we are prepared to meet the next challenge to global health and security — whatever it is and wherever it occurs.

The president is calling on leaders from around the world to make combating biological threats a priority. And Friday, at the White House, representatives from more than 40 countries will join together to make tangible commitments that will help countries better respond to future outbreaks.

Our strategy to achieve a world secure against biothreats is straightforward.

First, we need to prevent outbreaks by mitigating risks. To do that, we need a strong laboratory system in every nation that can identify pathogens and facilitate treatments that provide the right drug, at the right dosage, at the right time. We need protocols to protect those labs from terrorists intent on acquiring and using biological weapons. And immunizations should be routine and universal.

Second, we need to detect disease threats in real time, wherever they occur. That means we need better biosurveillance systems and teams of specialists that are trained to trace the path of a disease — to track down cases, determine how they occurred and contain outbreaks before they become epidemics.

And third, we need to respond more quickly to threats when they occur. Every nation should have strong emergency operations and systems to shepherd a unified response. We also need to improve the way we mobilize assets and share resources among countries, including by strengthening global health institutions so they can respond quickly to crises and then expand their efforts as needed.

The consequences of inaction are too great. Today the danger is Ebola. Tomorrow it could be another flu outbreak or a terrorist armed with a biological weapon. Or, it could be an as-yet-unknown danger as microbes continue to adapt and cause more virulent diseases. Whether we’re able to meet those threats depends on the choices and investments we make today.

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