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From Spanish flu to Ebola Virus Disease

Impressions from the first Global Health Security Conference

Dialogue with visitors at the "German Cooperation" exhibition booth

In June 2019, the first Global Health Security Conference brought together more than 850 people from 65 countries in Sydney, Australia, to discuss the following questions: How can we achieve sustainable protection against cross-border health threats? By means of better-equipped laboratories? Training health workers? Financing vaccination campaigns? 

Between 1918 and 1920, the Spanish flu spread all over the world: A quarter of the world's population became infected and up to 100 million people had died. A century after this devastating pandemic, the very first Global Health Security Conference took place in Sydney, Australia. Here, people shared knowledge and engaged in discussion on the research, policy, and practices aiming to improve global health security. 

The conference was organized by Associate Professor Adam Kamradt-Scott from the University of Sydney, Australia, and Professor Rebecca Katz from Georgetown University, USA. Participants came from academia, national and international governmental and non-governmental organizations, public health bodies, and the private sector. High-profile speakers included Regional Directors of WHO South East Asia (SEARO) and of WHO Western Pacific (WPRO), Peter Sands, Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Australia’s Federal Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, and John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Prior to the official start of the conference, the University of Sydney also hosted a Military Health Security Summit, jointly sponsored by the Australian Defence Force and the US military, to discuss the role of militaries in global health. This event was the first meeting of its kind.

Numerous sponsors such as the Australian Government, Johnson&Johnson, CEPI, and German Cooperation supported the conference.

German Cooperation as a platinum sponsor of the conference

GIZ's Epidemic Preparedness Team (German: Schnell Einsetzbare Expertengruppe Gesundheit, SEEG) represented the German Cooperation at the conference. SEEG was initiated by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in cooperation with the Federal Ministry of Health (BMG); GIZ cooperates with the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM) and the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). German Cooperation’s stance regarding health security is clear: different approaches and interventions to protect against health threats are only promising as long as they are integrated into national policies and as long as they strengthen the health system. The Ebola virus disease epidemic in West Africa has shown: Strong, resilient health systems are the most important prerequisite for national and global health security. This is why BMZ strengthens the health systems of its partner countries and why German Cooperation was a platinum sponsor at the Global Health Security Conference in Sydney.

“One Health” study on plague in Madagascar presented by SEEG

Dialogue with visitors at the "German Cooperation" exhibition booth

At an exhibition booth, participants were able to find out more about German Cooperation in the health sector and in particular in health security. Additionally, the SEEG presented first results of a study on plague which had been conducted in Madagascar in late 2018. There, an interdisciplinary team had examined, among other things, living spaces, livestock and soil conditions. This reflected a "One Health" approach, according to which the health of both humans and animals is considered as well as cohabitation in a common environment. This is essential to sustainably contain diseases, in particular those that are transmitted from animals to humans. Participants of the conference praised this study as a model for future approaches.

The ongoing threat of epidemics today

Even today, 100 years after the Spanish flu pandemic, infectious diseases with epidemic potential still break out regularly and threaten people across borders. Often, it affects countries with weak health systems which are hardly able to timely detect outbreaks, contain them, and thus protect their population. Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pointed out, per video streaming to the conference: health security is a shared responsibility, and all countries need to scale up and invest in prevention and preparedness. 

No wonder that the current outbreak of Ebola virus disease in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, too, was an intensely discussed topic at the conference. The outbreak has been going on for a year now, and is already the second largest Ebola epidemic in history. This epidemic clearly shows how crucial community engagement is to fight a highly contagious and highly pathogenic virus like Ebola. Participants agreed: In order to strengthen global health security, more engagement with local populations should be prioritized – as global health security starts in every individual community.

Further information

Kirstin Meier
July 2019


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