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Preventing pandemics « Back to Blogs

Could new strategies save money as well as lives?

Pandemic infectious diseases are on the rise. In the past twenty years, there have been outbreaks of Influenza, Ebola, Zika, and SARS. These have all caused considerable morbidity and mortality around the world and have also caused massive economic damage to some of the countries that have been affected. For example, the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone caused damaging and long-lasting effects on tourist, agriculture and industry sectors.

It is not clear where and when the next pandemic will strike – the only certainty is that it will happen.

There are two broad approaches that we can take to the pandemic threat. These include adaptive approaches that aim to reduce the effect of a disease after it emerges, and mitigation which should prevent pandemics by reducing the underlying causes of pandemics. Pike et al have looked at the economic costs and benefits of both strategies and have come up with some interesting results. (1)

In their paper, they first outline the costs of pandemics. They state that “estimates of the economic cost of an influenza pandemic range from $374 billion (in 2014 US$) for a mild pandemic to $7.3 trillion for a severe pandemic with 12.6% loss of gross domestic product (GDP) and 142 million deaths extrapolated globally”. (1)  

Then they modelled both adaptive and preventive strategies to prevent pandemics. Their findings are clear – mitigation is more cost effective and has the potential to save hundreds of billions of dollars. But they also state that the time to put mitigation strategies in place is now and the longer the delay the greater will be the cost.

So, will governments act in light of this modelling?

Thus far the response of the international community to some of the underlying causes of pandemics (such as climate change) has been sluggish and uncoordinated. This is a problem, and a wider challenge is that a multifaceted approach is needed. The healthcare sector cannot prevent pandemics alone.

Prevention will require the multiple sectors working together to tackle a range of problems – from global warming to problems with food supply chains. This will require global leadership on a scale not seen before. The economic damage caused by pandemics are clear and should attract the attention of departments of finance as well as departments of health. Relatively low cost resources could make a great difference. (2) But planners will need to be thinking twenty years ahead and not just in terms of four or five-year government cycles. And strong, resilient healthcare systems will be needed – as this video shows:

Written by Dr Kieran Walsh


  1. Pike JBogich TElwood SFinnoff DCDaszak P. Economic optimization of a global strategy to address the pandemic threat. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Dec 30;111(52):18519-23.  
  2. Walsh K, Jaye P. The relationship between fidelity and cost in simulation. Med Educ. 2012 Dec;46(12):1226

Featured image: CDC Global

Competing interests

Kieran Walsh works for BMJ which produces a range of resources on infectious and non-infectious diseases.


The purpose of this document is to educate and to inform. The content of this document does not constitute medical advice and it is not intended to function as a substitute for a healthcare practitioner’s judgement, patient care or treatment. The views expressed by contributors are those of the authors. BMJ does not endorse any views or recommendations expressed in this document. Readers should also be aware that professionals in the field may have different opinions. Users of this document hereby agree not to use its content as the basis for their own medical treatment or for the medical treatment of others.

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