Sunday, March 27, 2016

Ebola, WHO and the timidity of some infectious diseases experts to criticise those with power

This is slightly adapted from a blogpost published in BODHI, one of the NGOs I co-founded in 1989. That is called Ebola, WHO and the failures of a market based approach to global health.

The importance of the "milieu" (the social and environmental, or "eco-social") context

In 2012 I wrote a paper called "Infectious disease emergence and global change: thinking systemically in a shrinking world" in the inaugural issue of Infectious Diseases of Poverty (impact factor now 4.1). It has been moderately successful; cited 24 times to date, and for several years it was the most viewed article in the journal (and it might still be). That paper attempted to make several controversial points. One was that the risk of a globally catastrophic influenza outbreak has been grossly exaggerated. But the most important point was that the global health community needs to pay far more attention to the "milieu", the "terrain" in which infectious diseases thrive, a point about populations analogous to that made concerning the personal milieu, the individual immune system, by the Claude Bernard, who rivalled Pasteur as the most famous French health scientist in the 19th century. I suggested that there are forms of social immunity, not just determined by "herd" immunity (conferred by vaccination) but by health literacy, poverty, health systems and environmental conditions.

In 2015 I gave an invited talk at an infectious diseases conference in Spain, which I called Poverty, demography and infectious disease. This again stressed the milieu. The opening paragraph of my abstract read:

"Generations of slash and burn neoliberal, almost laissez faire development policies, with only rhetorical nods to global conservation and equity, continue to erode not only many environmental determinants of health, but also many factors that underpin social and health development. Here are three warnings to all who will listen that we live in One World with One Health."  My three warnings concerned (a) Ebola; (b) slowed poor development even in affluent Indian children, speculatively linked to the inadequacy of the sanitation system, in turn related to discrimination against the poor, and (c) how "Planetary Overload" could produce a future milieu in which public health systems fail and old diseases (e.g. TB, plague) return.
The political correctness of leading infectious diseases experts

Unfortunately, very few people in global public health seem to be in sympathy with my main point. This perception has been strengthened by my review (forthcoming for Faculty 1000 Global Health) of a recently published report concerning the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which is still ongoing (as of March 2016). This long article is called Will Ebola change the game? Ten essential reforms before the next pandemic. The report of the Harvard-LSHTM Independent Panel on the Global Response to Ebola".

Its lead author is Dr Susan Moon, from the Harvard Global Health Institute. This paper is highly critical of WHO's slow response to the appalling and frightening tragedy of Ebola in West Africa, but there seems no criticism of other big players in global health, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Clinton Foundation (indeed, Chelsea Clinton is a co-author) nor, indeed, of Médecins Sans Frontières‎ (who are also represented in the authors). Worse, there is no mention of neoliberalism (or any synonym for it, such as market-based approaches) but also no criticism of vertical health programs (i.e. interventions focusing on single diseases, at the expense of  broader health systems).

The crisis of funding for WHO

In 2002, the budget of WHO was reported to be less than that spent on advertising by two cola companies (Coca Cola and PepsiCo) (1). Since then the WHO budget may have fallen even more, as evidenced by quotes (in the Lancet paper) such as: "in the wake of the global financial crisis (2008) when WHO laid off more than a tenth of its headquarters staff, outbreak response capacity was deeply and disproportionately cut." "Decades of reducing assessed contributions in real terms has starved the organisation of resources."

The Lancet article includes extensive recommendations for how WHO might be strengthened, mainly by narrowing its focus and trying to wrest a different form of funding. But, again, there is no criticism of the international milieu which determines this funding.

The paper recommends that a global strategy be developed to invest in, monitor, and sustain core national health capacities. However, the onus seems then to be largely placed on WHO to do this ("WHO should convene governments and other major stakeholders within 6 months to begin developing a clear global strategy to ensure that governments invest domestically in building core capacities and to mobilise adequate external support to supplement efforts in poorer countries.")

We cannot just focus on firefighters: we need to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires

But the broader challenge of promoting development in low-income settings appears to have been overlooked in this paper. Firefighters are needed, but so is fire prevention. London banned thatched roofs following its Great Fire (1666).

WHO cannot do everything. There is far too little recognition that market forces, untramelled, combined with laissez-faire, environmental policies and population growth generate the milieux in which Ebola and other pandemics thrive (the point I made in my 2012 paper mentioned above.) This blindspot is also evident in a paper written by Bill Gates about Ebola.

This difference can also be seen as that between Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton. Clinton and other supporters of neoliberalism hold most power, and appear to sincerely believe in their own rhetoric; they know best. But many younger Democrat  supporters, who strongly favour Sanders, recognise the failure of conventional policies to give hope to the poor and the young. Donald Trump's support is driven by some similar factors; especially the realisation that so-called free markets are failing the inner-cities. Trump's isolationism is likely to further erode support for WHO, and the U.N. However I am uncertain Trump's policies will be that much worse for other determinants of global health than of Hilary and Bill Gates. However, at least, Melinda Gates has some awareness of the risk of unrestrained population growth.

1. Lang, T., Rayner, G.; E., K. The food industry, diet, physical activity and health: A review of reported commitments and practice of 25 of the world’s largest food companies. Report to the World Health Organization; City University Centre for Food Policy, London UK: 2006.