Tackling Infectious Disease Epidemics with Social Justice

By Douglas Matthews | Senior Marketing Manager for ID/AST Systems at bioMérieux

Infectious disease epidemics challenge global health security and are exacerbated by healthcare inequalities. Infectious disease outbreaks can spread quickly due to the cosmopolitan nature of the world, especially within disadvantaged subpopulations. By attending to social justice and reducing healthcare inequalities, we can help prevent the spread of infectious disease epidemics and reduce the burden of infection globally.

The Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) was founded in February 2014 in response to the global threat of infectious diseases. At that time, the world was tackling the 2014 Ebola outbreak and had already witnessed the following epidemic/pandemics: 2002 SARS epidemic, 2009 H1N1 influenza, 2012 MERS-CoV, and 2013 H7N9 influenza.

Currently, the world is grappling with a global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus COVID-19. This coronavirus is within the same family as both SARS and MERS and has sickened more than 75,000 individuals so far. The SARS virus (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak statistics showed around 8,098 illnesses worldwide and about 774 fatalities. The MERS pandemic (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) had a high mortality rate (33.4%) though the number of cases were low with only 2494 reported. 

The COVID-19 virus has spread to 26 countries and the majority of recent cases have been with individuals with an international travel history. These countries are attempting to contain the virus to prevent further transmission. The Chinese health commission reported that the number of new cases of the virus has slowed in the country, possibly through a mandatory quarantine of more than 60 million people in the central Hubei province.

Per WHO recommendations, countries are sequestering individuals thought to have exposure of the virus. Some countries, such as Israel, Australia, Germany, and the United States have repatriated some of their citizens and have them under quarantine. An entire ship, the Diamond Princess, was under a 14-day quarantine period, and 621 of the 3011 passengers tested positive for the virus. In Russia, there was an instance of a woman who escaped from quarantine. The woman was caught, taken to court, and ordered back into quarantine. However, no one in the court room, including Russian health authorities, wore masks to prevent catching the virus.

Basic preventive measures, such as wearing masks, are recommended to prevent transmission of the virus, though due to mask shortages, some Chinese citizens and clinicians have resorted to creating their own. Healthcare in Chinese provinces has been stressed with equipment shortages, overworked medical staff, and a shortage of general practitioners. This may have led to more than 1700 healthcare workers contracting the virus and highlights that simple preventative measures are crucial to stop transmission.

In low-income households and disadvantaged neighborhoods, there may not be preventive measures, or even education in place to help prevent the transmission of the virus. Both SARS and MERS are still present, which leads some experts to believe that we may be dealing with COVID-19 for years to come. Putting greater emphasis on global social justice may help make a difference. We can work to reduce healthcare inequalities throughout the world and therefore work to prevent the spread of infectious disease epidemics.

Today is the United Nations (UN) recognized World Day of Social Justice and the theme for this year is, “Closing the Inequalities Gap to Achieve Social Justice.” The World Day of Social Justice was created 25 years ago when the World Summit for Social Development adopted the Copenhagen Declaration, which pledged to “overcome poverty, reach full employment and foster social integration.” Since then, the world has made progress, although there are still inequalities in both industrialized and developing countries.

Reducing healthcare inequalities may help increase global health security. The recently released 2019 Human Development report discusses a method for measuring inequality known as the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI has three aspects; a long and healthy life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living—with healthy being the key dimension of the index. Life expectancy at birth is a key health indicator and extreme poverty has been shown to increase child mortality rates and reduce overall life expectancy. The is due largely to lack of access to adequate healthcare. By promoting social justice, we can help reduce healthcare inequalities and curtail the spread of infectious diseases throughout the world.

Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of by bioMérieux, Inc.

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