More than a year on from the start of the Ebola epidemic, the world has been hard at work trying to learn from the factors that have so far contributed to over 11,000 deaths.
Despite promising results from the recent Ebola vaccine trials, there are still signs that important lessons about research, health systems and vaccine preparedness have yet to be learned. Here, Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, draws them out in a TED talk delivered earlier this year in Vancouver.
1. Not having vaccines is frightening
The ability to protect ourselves from disease is a wonderful one, which has often been taken for granted in the Western world where the threat of preventable illness has largely worn off. Ebola has reminded the world of the seriousness of communicable disease and, on the flipside, the value of the vaccines we do have.
2. HIV, polio, Ebola? Research is transferrable
Did you know that four of the five Ebola vaccines now being tested use vectors (delivery mechanisms) originally developed and tested for HIV? Vectors can be a ready-made way of delivering protection against a harmful virus, cutting the time that needs to be spent making the vaccine. Its main components are already prepared – think of it like flat pack furniture. Polio has also been a useful point of reference during the outbreak, as experts from India were flown in to help in Sierra Leone, and Nigeria’s anti-polio drive was used to stamp out Ebola before it could gain a foothold in Africa’s most populous country.
3. We need to change the way we think about disease
We must stop waiting until we see evidence of a disease becoming a global threat before we treat it like one. With vaccines themselves, we stand by the principle that prevention is better than cure. The same applies to outbreaks of disease – better to build strong infrastructure to detect, prepare for and prevent them than wait for cases to develop before reacting.
4. Recognising market failures is essential
In the case of Ebola, a key step to finding solutions was to recognise that there had been a market failure. Despite the disease emerging in the 1970s, there was still no prevention or cure when the current epidemic began in 2014. The sad reality is that it is not the risk a pathogen poses that determines whether or not a vaccine is developed; rather, the deciding factor is how economically risky it is to develop that vaccine. Only by understanding this can we make progress against Ebola and diseases like it.
5. Preventing disease together is the way forward
We live in an increasingly interconnected world, so outbreaks like these can threaten us all. Accordingly, the best way to respond and prepare is by working and investing together. This involves investing in health systems and building capacity across the world and in some of the most vulnerable communities, so that responses to future outbreaks can be quicker and better. Although complacency is certainly a risk as the Ebola outbreak winds down, this approach has many advocates, including Bill Gates, who recently invested in establishing a global surveillance network. While it is not the only measure we need to take to prevent future epidemics, this is a solid step that will help protect us all.