Five years ago, an Ebola outbreak ripped through West Africa, killing over 11,000 people. During the 2014 outbreak, no effective vaccines or treatments were available while the international community’s response was often perceived as too reactive.
In 2018, Ebola struck again in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and it has claimed over 1,800 lives since then. However, this time the situation is different. Now we have a life-saving innovation at our disposal — an experimental vaccine.
So why is this latest outbreak still proving so difficult to control? The answer is complicated, and touches upon the many challenges in delivering such critical and timely health care to those most in need.
In rural, eastern DRC, many people live insurmountable distances from the nearest clinic and have no regular contact with health workers. Others have been displaced by ongoing conflict, making it difficult to identify people in need of vaccination or treatment.
The situation in the DRC highlights that the need to build resilient health systems is just as important as developing new technologies to address the health challenges faced by the world’s most vulnerable populations. Innovations like the Ebola vaccine can only be effective if we can get them to the communities most in need.
Last week, leaders from around the world met in Yokohama for the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD 7) where discussions focused on how to advance Africa’s economic development. Coming out of the meeting, leaders from Japan and 53 African countries committed to take action to advance innovation and technology in Africa, including in the area of health.
Healthy populations are critical to ensure that countries continue to make the needed progress along their development pathways. When people are healthy, they can work, support their families and contribute to the economy.
Japan has shown that investments in universal health coverage (UHC) can yield multiple knock-on benefits, and that in order to achieve UHC, stakeholders across government, industry and civil society must work closely together.
While remarkable progress in advancing global health care has been achieved in recent years, many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people still do not enjoy access to the medicines, vaccines and diagnostics needed for good health and well-being. In some cases, effective health technologies may not even exist for diseases that disproportionately affect developing countries.
Take the example of tuberculosis (TB) — the leading infectious cause of death worldwide. Nearly 10 million people fall ill with the disease each year — over 95 percent of whom live in developing countries. Existing diagnostic tools can be inaccurate or require specialized equipment, meaning many people suffering from TB in low-income settings are never properly diagnosed — or if they are, they do not receive the correct treatment.
Ensuring access to vital health innovations that can benefit the poor and vulnerable requires significant investment as well as new partnerships.
Encouraging progress is being made. Public-private partnerships like the Global Health Innovative Technology Fund (GHIT Fund), funded by the government of Japan, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Welcome Trust and several Japanese biomedical private sector companies, are helping to accelerate the research and development process by providing financial incentives for investing in health technologies for neglected tropical diseases, TB and malaria.
Since 2013, the GHIT Fund has fueled the development of potentially game-changing technologies for TB, malaria and neglected tropical diseases. One of these, a diagnostic tool co-developed by Fujifilm and the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), uses technology to help diagnose TB in HIV-positive patients without any specialized equipment.
Yet, while such diagnostic innovations have the potential to significantly reduce the burden of disease in poor and remote areas, there is an even greater need to invest in resilient health systems to ensure that such breakthroughs can realize their potential.
Japan is taking a lead role in this area. The Access and Delivery Partnership — a collaboration between the government of Japan, the United Nations Development Programme, the World Health Organization, the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases and PATH — is supporting developing countries to strengthen their health systems, including by addressing challenges in policy and regulatory environments.
Such investment will improve their access to ground-breaking health care innovations. UHC cannot be achieved by any one actor alone — every actor must play their part in building resilient health systems. That means tapping into the varied expertise that can be provided by a wide range of actors, including governments, civil society, the U.N. system including the WHO, key partners such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, as well as bilateral development agencies, donors and the private sector.
On Sept. 23, governments from around the world will have an opportunity to build on the progress made at TICAD 7 by recommitting to achieve health for all at the U.N. High-Level Meeting on UHC. Such commitments must be accompanied by concrete action. That means investment in strong health systems that are able to withstand global health threats, whether it be Ebola, TB or another of the myriad deadly infectious diseases that threaten some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
In today’s interconnected world, disease outbreaks do not respect national borders. We must all work together to ensure everyone, no matter where they live, has access to quality health care that they need not only to survive but also to ensure that they can live a healthy life — one of the crucial targets set out in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
If we can ensure such fair access to health care, there is a real chance we can stop the next deadly disease outbreak before it occurs.
Keizo Takemi is a member of the House of Councilors and is the World Health Organization goodwill ambassador for universal health coverage. Achim Steiner is the administrator of the U.N. Development Programme.