What are infectious diseases?
Put simply, infectious diseases (also known as communicable diseases - CDs) are usually spread by contact with infected individuals, animals, surfaces, foods or air particles. The main categories of communicable disease are viral, bacterial, fungal, and parasitic disease. Infection usually varies from mild to extremely severe symptoms, and could become lethal in some cases. Diseases of this type include, but are not limited to: HIV/AIDS, avian flu, mpox, COVID-19, hepatitis, zika, tuberculosis, west Nile virus, and so on.
Infectious or communicable diseases (CDs) are on the rise: the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak, the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent rise of mpox cases signal the importance of a swift response to the rise of such diseases: throughout the 21st century, there have been continued outbreaks of emerging, re-emerging, and endemic pathogens that spread quickly, often aided by global connectivity and shifts in their ranges due to climate change. This may indicate a new era of infectious diseases.
Indeed, in recent decades, two to three new infectious agents have appeared each year and zoonotic infectious diseases, i.e. those that can be transmitted between humans and animals, have been on the rise since the 1980s (1). Thus, compared to an average of one pandemic per century before the 20th century, humanity has already recorded six since the beginning of the 21st century with SARS, influenza A H1N1, MERS-CoV, Zika, Ebola and Covid-19.
While increased sanitization, vaccines and antibiotics have helped to reduce avoidable deaths from communicable diseases in past decades, the most recent outbreaks stated above have shown that new or re-emerging infectious diseases can be considered, aside of climate change, as the one of the biggest threats to global public health, as well as social and economic well being.
COVID-19 in particular, showed that no governments or institutions are able to tackle infectious disease on their own. To address this type of diseases, which know no border and are able to travel to the other side of the world in less than 24 hours, a global pandemic prevention, preparedness and response system is needed.
How is the international community preparing vs. future crises?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Health Regulations (IHR) were the main international set of rules available to address pandemics. After the pandemic, discussions began in relation to a Pandemic Treaty, causing a “two-arenas” situation, with two parallel discussions currently taking place at the same time.
With regard to the Pandemic Treaty, the international community is currently rearticulating global health governance in the form of a new international legally binding instrument to be submitted to the 77th World Health Assembly (WHA) in spring 2024 under the Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO). A progress report on the accord will be given to the WHA this May.
According to preliminary discussions and the so-called "Zero Draft" published in February 2023 (4), this agreement could define measures to:
- Strengthen the role of WHO as a coordination body on exchange of information on health risks related to the occurrence of zoonotic diseases;
- Ensure universal and equitable access to medical solutions and technologies (such as vaccines, treatments or diagnostic tools) in particular for LMICs. To address the issue of intellectual property rights, a package deal could be reached in exchange for pathogen samples and other relevant data essential for surveillance and diagnostics in LMICs.
- Support in addressing the root causes of pandemics through a more holistic approach that encompasses human, animal and ecosystem health (also referred to as the "One Health" approach).
What is the current outlook?
Negotiations are currently underway for two sets of international rules:
- Amendments to the International Health Regulations (IHR)
- Agreeing on a broader Pandemic Treaty
These negotiations are key for how the global health system will address future pandemics and deal with communicable diseases crises, therefore, the success of negotiations is extremely important. With regard to the Pandemic Treaty, a “conceptual zero draft” has been presented in late February 2023, officially initiating negotiations amongst WHO member states, which are expected to be concluded by late spring 2024.
In the context of this hotly debated global agreement aiming at protecting the world from future pandemics, foraus is bringing together young global health enthusiasts and experts from academia, international Geneva and civil society together to explore needed policy measures to prevent futures infectious diseases crises and halt their rise by 2030, more specifically formulating recommendations for the Swiss authorities in their health foreign policy.
(1) République française - Commissariat général au développement durable (2022). Zoonoses: quels liens entre atteintes à la biodiversité et pandémies ?
(2) Jones KE, et al. Global trends in emerging infectious diseases. Nature. 2008 Feb 21;451(7181):990–993.
(3) Geneva Policy Outlook. Determining the course of a Global Pandemic Treaty. Jan. 30, 2023. https://www.genevapolicyoutlook.ch/determining-the-course-of-a-global-pandemic-treaty/
(4) WHO (February 2023). Zero Draft - WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response (“WHO CA+”). https://apps.who.int/gb/inb/pdf_files/inb4/A_INB4_3-en.pdf
Interesting news and readings (updated in regular basis):
- Health Policy Watch (01.03.2023). The World May Agree on a Pandemic Accord, But How Will it be Implemented? - link