The past three years have shaken the World Health Organization (WHO). The agency made some grave mistakes in its handling of the Ebola epidemic, which caused more than 11,000 deaths. Then, before it could even implement changes from lessons learned, the Zika epidemic struck. Though less deadly, it left thousands of babies with malformed brains.
As a new year begins, the WHO is beginning to implement a new pandemic preparedness plan, so that countries around the world are ready for the next Ebola or Zika. Step one in that plan is the creation of the Emerging Diseases Clinical Assessment and Response Network (EDCARN), intended to help caretakers during an outbreak.
But for the WHO to implement its new health-emergencies program in 2016-17—of which EDCARN is a part—the agency needs $485 million in funding. As of October (pdf), they had raised just over half that. Worse, the organization also needs $656 million to support its humanitarian response plans, but as of October had only raised a third.
Underfunding EDCARN has potentially huge consequences. Epidemics tend to start in countries with poor health care—both Ebola and Zika laid bare the gap between local-health organizations and global-response systems. EDCARN helps to bridge that gap by training local health workers to look out for diseases that are on the WHO’s list of likely outbreak candidates, such as Middle-East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.
“African countries are still so dependent on international and global outfits that the return of Ebola or any other disease will be another déjà vu of national unpreparedness,” Oyewale Tomori, a virologist at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria warned in Nature last month.
Bill Gates, whose foundation funds health care efforts, is similarly worried. “I cross my fingers all the time that some epidemic, like the flu, doesn’t come along in the next 10 years,” he said in an interview with the BBC. ”If something spread very quickly … and was fatal, that would be a tragedy.”