What should the Australian government be doing about global health threats like Ebola?

By Kate Hawkins

ABC radio in Australia interviewed one of our colleagues Barbara McPake to get her views on what the national response to Ebola and other health crises should look like.

She explained how the response is a broad church from lab based scientists to social scientists looking at the social determinants of ill health. The Nossal Institute is currently meeting to discuss health security and the Australian aid for health.

She suggested that the global health community is responding fairly poorly to health threats. Ebola should be quite an easy disease to control given that there is a fairly small period when people are infectious but the symptoms are invisible. In places like Syria and Iraq it is difficult to prioritise health systems when there are so many other emergencies and crises. But both their health systems have been very seriously damaged by events there.

National health systems weaknesses underpin the problem. But there have also been two major global health systems failures:

  1. The lack of sufficient investments in health systems over a long period which has left them vulnerable to shocks like Ebola
  2. A lack of investment in global emergency disease control measures

“The World Health Organisation has acknowledged the failures in its response, but longer term there has been a failure to invest in the World Health Organisation…Budget costs there have meant that it has lost a lot of Ebola experts in the last few years.”

Barbara explained how a lot of health aid has been targeted at specific health conditions over the last decade. This has had positive results and been quite effective for the particular illnesses which received support. But the ability of the health system to respond to a range of health problems in many settings is weak because of under-investment.

Both Bird Flu and SARS are threats to Australia as they emanate in the region. Countries like China have significantly strengthened their health system since the SARS outbreak. But other countries have very weak health systems.

Barbara went on to state that Australian aid has made some really good investments in the past, for example in Cambodia. The current administration continues to emphasise health and education. Health systems should be part of that. There are simple and effective investments that can be made in this area and there is also a need to innovate and find new mechanisms for the delivery of health care. Barbara is hoping that the Government will focus on these innovations in the health system as well as investments in general development as part of the mix. Weak health systems rely significantly on people paying out of their pockets for health care. There is a need to get that balance right and see these things as mutually supportive.

Listen to Barbara on ABC Radio or download the sound file…

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