Disease Outbreak, Government Policy, Poverty, Infectious Diseases

Values and Global Health Governance: Lessons from the Ebola 2014 Outbreak

~Written by J. La Juanie Hamilton, PhD Candidate (Contact: lajuaniehamilton@gmail.com)

Twitter: @jasminogen

Values are critical in shaping the global health (GH) dialogue and landscape. Values and the actions that arise from them (virtues) underlie the policies that ensure universal access to necessary health services, adequate responses to health emergencies and resource allocation. Similarly, the values of health governing bodies can create chasms between people and their health necessities. This truth has been unfolding poignantly on an international level during the handling of the Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak in West Africa. 

What values did the actions or inaction of the international GH community endorse in handling the current EVD outbreak? Although the uniqueness of the outbreak in terms of location and challenges in diagnosis should be considered, many experts agree that the greatest force contributing to the rapid spread of EVD was inaction (1-4). In June 2014, signs that EVD was spiraling out of control throughout Guinea were flashing brightly but the response from the international community remained slow. The exception was Doctors without Borders (MSF), whose staff was already on the ground, helped to diagnose the first case and pleaded for a more robust response from international health governing bodies (3). 

Criticisms of health regulatory bodies grew stronger when EVD entered rich countries, which appeared to produce a marked increase in global support efforts. It is hard to say unequivocally, whether this heightened interest and commitment was inevitable or whether the cases in the US and Europe were the impetus. But it is fair to say that many mistakes were made in terms of prioritizing EVD eradication and surveillance. It may also be accurate to say that major economies responded when EVD was perceived as an immediate threat to their economy. This, I believe, is inevitable in a GH system that is built upon a market-driven approach.

Can a GH agenda that is framed around economics prioritize the eradication of emerging diseases and neglected diseases of poverty? Although there are compelling arguments for why high-income countries should help to combat EVD and similar diseases, it is unlikely that great achievements will be made without a values shift (5). 

A market driven approach inherently prioritizes the need of a few versus the need of many. This model enables the interests of major economies to outweigh the greater good of the whole, if left unchecked. The most important consequence of this approach is that it undermines international health regulatory bodies, whose actions and budgets are heavily influenced by larger economies. This is a problem which, when combined with poor health systems, harmful microbes and permeable borders will inevitably lead to threats in local communities and global security. More importantly, with the movement of people forming a major characteristic of this era, the market driven approach is an unsustainable value upon which to build GH interventions. 

There are many points worth considering (schematic above). Major questions moving forward should consider creating a GH model that is more oriented toward equity, security and creativity. Resolutions that create a space in which poor nation states help to set the GH agenda without being threatened by the loss of aid from larger economies must be discussed. Additionally, addressing ways in which the GH dialogue can be re-framed to include stakeholders that currently operate based on virtues stated above should be considered. For example, is there a way to ensure a more official decision-making role for organizations like MSF?

What is next for GH governance and what will the values shift towards? EVD 2014 is a strong indicator of the limits of theoretical values, political indifference and passivity in achieving health and well-being for all. But the stories emerging from West Africa provide an opportunity for EVD 2014 to serve as a “meaning making” event in GH. It provides an impetus for changing priorities from passive verbiage of values of human dignity to a model of creativity, equity and accountability which proactively contextualizes GH policies, innovation and interventions. 

1. Gostin LO and Friedman EA 2014 Ebola: a crisis in global health leadership. The Lancet, 384; 1323-1324. 
2. Cohen J 2014.Ebola vaccine: Little and late. Science, 345 (6203): 1441-1442. 
3. Ebola: Massive Deployment Needed to Fight Epidemic in West Africa: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/news-stories/press-release/ebola-massive-deployment-needed-fight-epidemic-west-africa
4. Farrar JJ and Piot P 2014. The Ebola Emergency-Immediate Action, Ongoing Strategy N. Engl J Med 371(16):1545-1546.
5. Rid, A., & Emanuel, E. J. (2014). Why Should High-Income Countries Help Combat Ebola? JAMA, 312(13), 1297-1298.