Mending the bridge between science and politics
As public health discussions have increased in the daily discourse in the last couple of years, the divide between science and politics has deepened.
The growing lack of mutual respect between science and politics is a major barrier to effective health security systems and a threat to avoiding the next pandemic. Mending the bridge between the two will be a key step towards improving preparedness in 2023 so that health emergencies are rapidly addressed with targeted interventions developed collaboratively between politicians and researchers.
Aligned with this is the “need to focus on risk communications as a frontline intervention,” says Alisha Smith-Arthur, RTI’s Director of Public Health Preparedness and Global Health Security. While risk communications currently play a role in health security measures, it isn’t being maximized on the frontlines of protection against health emergencies, thwarting the effectiveness of other interventions.
In RTI’s work, the solution lies in supporting locally developed interventions from risk communications to vaccines so that communities are using homegrown tools developed by scientists who are neighbors in the community and adopted by politicians who are invested in the communities’ needs.
For example, Smith-Arthur points to the renewed effort to expand vaccine access through a new commitment to markedly increase vaccine manufacturing in Africa as a promising step in the right direction in 2023.
But protecting people from health threats does not just fall on the shoulders of scientists, public health officials and politicians.
“We need an all of society global response to advance this,” says MacDonald. “We need to democratize data so that researchers from various disciplines can become involved in solving the challenges and society can hold politicians and governments accountable.”
Transitioning from reactive to proactive pandemic responses
While containing outbreaks in 2022 relied heavily on the strength and effectiveness of frontline health workers, 2023 needs to usher in a greater focus on preempting health threats to stop them before they take a hold and become epidemics or the next pandemic.
For example, Uganda’s tried-and-true response systems helped them control the 2022 Sudan ebolavirus outbreak within a matter of months, but it still came at a deadly cost and sent parts of the country into crippling lockdowns. New, preventative vaccines could reduce the impact of future outbreak on affected population.
Having an effective vaccine to prevent Ebola is a valuable intervention in itself, but a recent study by Bisanzio et al. also highlighted the importance of proactively utilizing vaccines among key groups, like frontline health workers, in preparation for an outbreak. The study demonstrated that when key population groups were vaccinated before, as opposed to after, a case was identified, Ebola posed less of a threat.
In addition, clear information and rapid, targeted interventions are needed to protect communities against the next pandemic and endemic diseases. While this concept seems obvious, countries have been notoriously susceptible to the cycle of panic and neglect when facing a health emergency, resulting in uncoordinated, slow, and ineffective responses.
Tackling the threat of antimicrobial resistance
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) continues to grow globally as a silent pandemic but also as a concerning aggravator during other epidemics and pandemics, weakening tools against many health threats, such as tuberculosis.
In the year ahead, we believe strengthening the global collective attention on AMR is a priority. Embedding coordination, communication, and capacity strengthening between the human, animal, and environmental health sectors within national systems, particularly health systems, will be an important way to leverage innovative alternatives to antibiotics and slow the deadly AMR epidemic that is ever growing.
Building resilient health systems before the next pandemic
Standing up permanent systems and practices that focus on detection and response, rather than reactive systems that communities scramble to build after an emergency occurs, is our best protection, emphasized MacDonald. However, this takes “sustained political commitment and funding to grow people, systems, and structures for prevention, detection, and response,” she adds.
“Outbreaks will happen and response to health threats isn’t easy or without unknowns and costs, but if every country can also have effective health security measures, like targeted immunizations systems and disease surveillance systems that prevent and anticipate health threats, then we will really be able to improve the health of all and alleviate the toll of emergencies,” said Bisanzio.
Want to delve further? Click on the links below to see what we are reading and watching as we continually look to improve disease prevention, detection, and treatment.
Learn more about RTI’s work in global health security.