By Darren Back, Vice President, Global Health & Patient Access, Health Investments, Pfizer Inc.
History is no stranger to infectious diseases. From the “Plague of Athens” in 430 BC to the Zika virus in 2015, each outbreak has provided insights to help us prevent and manage future public health crises. However, few were prepared for Covid-19, showing us that there is still significant work to be done to help prevent the next global health emergency. Fortunately, we have a roadmap.
The importance of resilient health care systems
During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, the world learned how quickly infectious diseases can spread among communities and across borders, devastating vital health services along the way.
During the most recent outbreak that began in 2018, more than 2,200 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo died from Ebola. Yet more than twice as many lives were lost, mostly children, from measles as a result of the disruption to essential vaccination programs and health services. Covid-19 has amplified this trend on a global scale, with an estimated 80 million children now at increased risk of vaccine-preventable diseases.
This scenario highlights that health care systems are only as strong as their weakest link. To break this cycle, governments and public health actors need to work together to invest in new technologies and infrastructure, human capital, and sustainable programs that can truly effect change.
Improving health care information
At Pfizer, we have learned through our decades-long global antimicrobial resistance (AMR) surveillance programs that rigorous and timely information is critical to help inform decision-making and ensure successful infection control and prevention programs. This includes disease surveillance that can detect pathogenic threats before they spread and protect against dangers like AMR.
AMR occurs when bacteria change in response to the use of antibiotics, making previously treatable diseases difficult or impossible to treat. AMR, which can turn even a small scrape or infection deadly, is a growing global threat.
Pfizer recently partnered with Wellcome to establish a new multi-year, public-private research collaboration with the governments of Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Uganda to track resistance patterns and better understand the burden of AMR in these countries. The partnership also provides additional health care capacity building through advanced laboratory technique training for national and local laboratory teams.
To combat threats like Covid-19 and AMR, we must continue to improve our health information systems around the globe and reduce the gaps that exist both locally and globally.
Ensuring equitable access to care
Covid-19 has also underscored the impact of social determinants of health on people’s ability to access quality health services. Across the U.S., enduring inequities have contributed to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic among ethnically and racially diverse groups. These communities often experience reduced access to care, putting them at even greater risk.
Strengthening our delivery systems, particularly for those most vulnerable, is critical to any future outbreak response. Through a new initiative The Pfizer Foundation is supporting with Direct Relief, we’ve learned that fewer than half of the thousands of safety-net clinics they partner with had an emergency response plan tailored to epidemics, and many lacked adequate operation funding.
As Covid-19 has increased demand on free and charitable clinics and health centers, many have struggled to continue to provide primary care services and screenings for Covid-19, impacting their ability to keep communities safe.
Only once we meet the needs of the underserved through approaches such as enabling rapid Covid-19 testing among homeless populations and delivering pediatric immunizations in non-clinical settings can we begin to effectively protect everyone. This is why Pfizer is continuing to support partners like Direct Relief to help close these gaps and create greater health equity in our communities.
Providing vaccines and treatments
It goes without saying that once a vaccine, treatment, or medical technology is developed, patients need access. We also know that creating access is complex, requiring sound policy, information, procurement, and supply chains, and timely and effective guidelines.
Building an effective system requires close collaboration and partnership, as we have seen in our efforts to eliminate trachoma. Trachoma, a neglected tropical disease, is the leading infectious cause of blindness worldwide and is both a cause and a consequence of poverty in many low- and middle- income countries.
In 1998, in partnership with the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, Pfizer founded the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI) to help combat the disease globally. Together with other global health partners, ITI has delivered more than 900 million doses of donated antibiotic and implemented a comprehensive, multi-sector approach to building greater health equity for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. This includes mapping disease prevalence globally and ensuring access to interventions beyond quality health care, such as adequate nutrition, clean water, and sanitation.
To help protect against continued infectious disease threats, we must support the effective and equitable allocation of life-saving resources — as well as integrated, evidence-driven policies and approaches — to have a lasting impact.
Responding today for a stronger tomorrow
Building and strengthening global public health systems is a science and we already have the formula. In the same way that biopharmaceutical research and development has been catalyzed by the learnings from the industry’s successes and failures, it’s essential that we do the same in our public health efforts. This requires a global commitment built on values that extend beyond the current emergency, to create a resilient global system that works seamlessly for all. Without it, we will remain as susceptible to the next global health emergency as we are today.
As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Learn more about Pfizer’s global health commitments.