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Why our health systems are not ready for a global epidemic

Bill Gates topped the news once again this week, for consistently being the richest man in the world. But this rich man is working for the world’s poorest very serious – with global health as a key focus area under the umbrella of ‘Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’.

As a part of a recently published Ted Talks filmed during March 2015, he said outbreaks in future might occur that would infect and kill up to 10 million people globally – which would be caused by microbes rather than war and missiles.

How did the Ebola spread?

He gave the example of Ebola outbreak in Africa as an example to say that we are having higher chances of failure as there is no global system at all to mitigate and work towards it. 

The Model of spread / progression of Ebola in an year and the deaths occurred in Africa. Image Credits: TED Talks

In this map, he showed the Model of spread / progression of Ebola in an year and the deaths occurred in Africa as of March 18, 2015 – which is put at 10,194. He commended the work of health workers for containing the virus and said we were lucky this time due to the inherent  nature of ebola – that cannot spread thorough air and the virus not getting into urban areas.

What if, its a major catastrophe?

However, he said – there are chances that the next virus could cause a major catastrophe, and gave an example of how the spread of 1918 Spanish Flu, in the current scenario can have devastating effects. 

Map showing the potential of virus spreading globally and causing more 30 million deaths over a period of 263 days. Image Credits: Ted Talks

This  map shows the potential of virus spreading globally and causing more 30 million deaths over a period of 263 days.

Global health systems – What are we missing today?

He said the key component we are missing today is proper Surveillance & Data collection mechanism that can actually track the spread of the virus like Ebola. There were no epidemiologists on ground who were closely monitoring the situation and spread of virus. Rather reports news papers etc. were coming in, by the time the event has occurred and it was very late.

Other key problems like having hundreds and thousands of workers to be coordinated at various places, to have proper treatment mechanisms in place, was a key missing factor instead of all the best efforts as per current scenarios. While organisations like World Health Organisations (WHO) exist to monitor these, having such systems are still not fully in place – he said.

What do latest technologies offer?

He however said, we have technologies today that can help in building a good response system and quoted advances like cell phones to share information and use satellite maps to monitor and track movements of people and advances in biology that can help us manufacture the drugs. He said that though there are such tools existing there is a need to have these tools kept for utilisation in the global health system and we need preparedness towards that.

For the preparedness model, he gave the scenario of a war, where the military organisations and the ones like NATO that can prepare very rapidly.  For this he suggested to have such systems ready and prepared, taking situation like Ebola a wakeup call and get ready.

Significance for geospatial

This is a great and significant mention that Bill Gates and his foundation has recognised the importance of satellite images in global health. This is an outcome of the efforts made by one of the biggest satellite imagery providers, to build in awareness on how geospatial analytics aided by Big Data can bring in potential benefits to the global health systems. While, there is no significant mention on this front in public,  we definitely would see more news breaking out soon!