The true costs of human suffering due to public health risks

Toward the end of 2013, SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, claimed its first fatality in Singapore, the country with the highest rate of travel between the U.S. and Asia, and the longest trip time. By the end of 2014, 678 cases had been reported in the U.S., more than 30 percent of which were in New York City.

And not too far in the future, “the next outbreak of an epidemic, whether it be smallpox, West Nile virus, bird flu, even SARS 2, could be more devastating than any of them,” the Columbia Epidemiology and Informatics Department’s Michael Siegel warned at a hearing of the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Siegel was addressing a National Academy of Sciences report (PDF) published this week that warns that the global health system is failing to effectively cope with pandemics — which could wipe out billions of people — and is not prepared to deal with the next West Nile outbreak or the next pandemic, with as many as 250 million killed. Many of the worst-case scenarios were not known when SARS struck. Now, “the loss of life is not just catastrophic, it is a very heavy cost to us and to people around the world,” Siegel said.

The recommendation is not to panic: The risk is low and the events currently anticipated “are rare,” according to the report, but it’s clear a new approach is required. America needs to do more, but the effectiveness of that should depend on how many trillions — and a lot of new bodies — it has available to help better care for a future pandemic.

Read the full story at Reuters.

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