IHP news #461

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Global health’s X-files & TB momentum

By on March 16, 2018Dear Colleagues,


This week’s intro comes from IHP contributor Clara Affun-Adegbulu. Among others, she ponders the somewhat mysterious sounding “Disease X”.

Disease X, Maladie X, Krankheit X… Is this is a multilingual list of illnesses from a  medical sci-fi series based in outer space, or one of Elon Musk’s apocalyptic nightmares? No. It is in fact, the 8th disease on the WHO’s recently released list of Blueprint priority diseases.

Globalisation, cheap flights and unprecedented levels of human movement mean that new diseases and mutated strains of old ones can spread more easily, rapidly turning local outbreaks into global epidemics. Outbreak preparedness through research and development is vital to containing such epidemics and ensuring global health security. Yet it is clear that focusing only on specific diseases could leave us open to being taken by surprise, by an outbreak of a different disease which may be just as deadly, but requires different responses. It is of course impossible to decide with certainty, which diseases will be causing havoc in any one year, so adding a disease with a placeholder name to the list is a great idea. This should force people to think outside the Blueprint of priority diseases box, and enable the prioritisation of cross-cutting preparedness measures which go beyond the research and development of particular vaccines, to more general but just as important ones like reinforcing health systems and ensuring that they are ready and resilient enough to cope with outbreaks of previously unknown diseases. It also shows that the WHO (and the wider community of global health security experts) have finally decided to be pragmatic and accept the fact that predictions of the diseases which are likely to lead to epidemics are sometimes nothing more than educated guesses.

Educated guesses and increased unpredictability bring us to today’s geopolitical context, where authoritarianism is becoming de rigueur; populism and nationalism are on the rise; wars seem to go on forever; and some leaders act with impunity, not caring one jot about international conventions. In the current climate of international instability, it is becomingly increasingly difficult for the WHO and other global stakeholders to take the lead and act. Navigating an unpredictable, dynamic situation, where everything is changeable and changing is challenging, one could say, borrowing from the WHO’s nomenclature, that we are currently living in a “World X” (the “Allo Allo” fans among you might prefer the term ‘Krank Welt’). The latter feels at least as dangerous as ‘Disease X’ (at least if you’re not Elon Musk and counting on Mars as a way out).

So we now live in a “World X” which is at significant risk of a “Disease X” outbreak, and this requires “Research X” in preparation for a “Response X” which can be scaled up, adapted and deployed quickly, should the need arise. This, as the WHO has recognised, is one of the most effective ways of assuring global health security. But if this starts to sound a bit like the X-files, we don’t blame you.


Enjoy your reading.

The editorial team



(you find the pdf of the newsletter here: IHPn461 )

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