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Ebola Virus Outbreak

Prevent Another Ebola With Insurance Plan, World Bank Head Says

Image: More U.S. troops arrive in Liberia to fight Ebola

Around 100 U.S. Marines arrive at the Roberts international Airport on Thursday to join the fight against the deadly Ebola outbreak that left hundreds dead in the country, on Oct. 9, in Monrovia, Liberia. Getty Images file

The world needs some kind of insurance plan to help countries defend against the next pandemic and prevent disasters like the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said Tuesday.

Ebola just passed the 22,000 mark in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the World Health Organization said earlier on Tuesday. And 8,800 people have died of the virus.

International efforts to fight the virus have made some inroads — just a handful of confirmed cases have been reported over the past week in Liberia, for instance. But spread remains bad in Sierra Leone, with more than 100 confirmed cases in the past week, and 20 new confirmed cases in Guinea. And it's destroying economies.

WHO has admitted it didn’t move fast enough to raise the alarm about Ebola, which started spreading noticeably in April. But public health experts also point out that member countries have not funded WHO properly, and the short-staffed agency is still struggling to keep up.

"We must learn the lessons from the Ebola outbreak because there is no doubt we will be faced with other pandemics in the years to come.”

“We need to make sure that we get to zero cases in this Ebola outbreak,” Kim said in a speech at Georgetown University.

“At the same time, we need to prepare for future pandemics that could become far more deadly and infectious than what we have seen so far with Ebola. We must learn the lessons from the Ebola outbreak because there is no doubt we will be faced with other pandemics in the years to come.”

Public health experts say the probability of a pandemic —a worldwide epidemic of a new and deadly disease — is 100 percent. Often it’s a new strain of influenza, like the 2009 H1N1 swine flu, but it could be a virus such as SARS, which infected 8,000 people in 2003 before it was stopped.

“The next epidemic could be catastrophic,” Kim said. “Insurance company executives view pandemics as their greatest long-term business risk.” That’s ahead of natural catastrophes such as earthquakes.

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WHO, the United Nations, re-insurance companies and academic experts have been putting together some ideas, Kim said. They may involve a combination of bonds and insurance plans to come up with a plan similar to homeowner’s insurance.

“This could work like insurance policies that people understand, like fire insurance,” he said. “The more that you are prepared for a fire, such as having several smoke detectors in your house, the lower the premium you pay.”

Such a scheme would have to include an early warning system in every country. Experts all agree that had word gotten out earlier about Ebola’s initial spread in Guinea, it could have been contained, just as it has been every time in other parts of Africa.

“Insurance company executives view pandemics as their greatest long-term business risk.”

There would have to be financing of a rapid response, plans to make more vaccines available and better networks to distribute vaccines, drugs and medical supplies. ”Mobilizing funds after the emergency is not effective,” Kim pointed out.

“The more that countries, multi-lateral institutions, corporations and donors work together to prepare for future pandemics — by building stronger health systems, improved surveillance and chains of supply and transportation, and fast-acting medical response teams — the lower the premium as well,” Kim said.

“That would benefit donors and others who would pay the premium, but the greatest benefit would be that market mechanisms would help us to push improvements in our preparedness for epidemics.”