Daniel Bausch, director of the UK Public Health Rapid Support Team, cited three significant infectious disease epidemics of the 21st century: SARS, H1N1 and Ebola, during a visit to the Yale School of Public Health Thursday.
Will the novel coronavirus now in Wuhan, China, be added to the list?
It’s too early to tell, but the world will be hearing much more about it in the days and weeks to come.
“It’s a rapidly evolving situation. This is something that threatens to be big,” Bausch told a capacity audience attending the Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases Seminar Series.
Bausch, MD, MPH, noted the successes and failures involved in the public health responses to the 2003 SARS outbreak (8,000 cases); the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus epidemic (~200 million cases); and the 2013 Ebola outbreak (28,639 cases).
The world largely “dodged a bullet” during the SARS coronavirus outbreak and learned some important lessons in the process, he said. There was rapid mobilization of global expertise and good collaboration overall between countries as the response unfolded. Technology allowed for the virus to be quickly identified and for diagnostic assays to be quickly created.
But not everything went smoothly. Some countries were initially not completely forthcoming about what was happening and there were breakdowns in the surveillance networks for SARS.
While the fatality rate was not very high, Bausch described the H1NI pandemic as one of the scariest outbreaks of this century. Public health experts were unable to prevent its spread around the world and if the virus was more deadly, it would have been a “worst-case scenario.” There could have been millions of deaths, he said.
Most recently, the Ebola outbreak in western Africa in 2013 took public health workers by surprise. Early on, the outbreak appeared to have peaked and was trending downward, only to be followed by a wave of infections after the virus crossed into neighboring countries with dense population centers.
Beyond the considerable number of lives lost, the outbreak resulted in billions of dollars in economic costs for the three countries most effected. Schools were also cancelled for a year, which derailed essential education for numerous children, and many children were orphaned after their parents died. The outbreak touched everyone.
We now live in a world where what happens in a faraway region is no longer somebody else’s problem, Bausch said. Researching and developing detection capacity for emerging pathogens is now in everyone’s best interest.
What if there was the capacity to detect HIV when it was first emerging? Bausch asked. “How different would the world be? How many lives could have been saved?”