The consequences and outcomes of the 2014 Ebola epidemic are still fresh in the minds of public health, medical professionals, and the general public, worldwide.

Now in 2016, we are faced with the fear of a potential epidemic stemming from the Zika virus, which has made its way to 25 countries (and counting) in 2016.  The question the world must now pose, once again, is: are we prepared?

There are two ways to view this question. One concerns the capacity for a proper international response to epidemics. The other concerns our ability to prevent epidemics by preventing the spread of our modern “germs”. This second matter involves not only containing and combating disease, but developing a means of a stable international system for prevention.

Fortunately, the threat of the spread of Zika has emerged with recently-learned lessons from the 2014 Ebola epidemic. To answer the first aspect of this question, the Ebola epidemic quickly revealed the failures of local, national, and transnational health systems. WHO has responded to this issue by developing a bigger and better arsenal against disease: international cooperation for an effective response to international health crisis.

The WHO response to Zika is detailed as the following:

  • Define and prioritize research into Zika virus disease by convening experts and partners.
  • Enhance surveillance of Zika virus and potential complications.
  • Strengthen capacity in risk communication to help countries meet their commitments under the International Health Regulations.
  • Provide training on clinical management, diagnosis and vector control including through a number of WHO Collaborating Centres.
  • Strengthen the capacity of laboratories to detect the virus.
  • Support health authorities to implement vector control strategies aimed at reducing Aedes mosquito populations such as providing larvicide to treat standing water sites that cannot be treated in other ways, such as cleaning, emptying, and covering them.
  • Prepare recommendations for clinical care and follow-up of people with Zika virus, in collaboration with experts and other health agencies.

WHO’s Zika response has no doubt been presented much more quickly than in the case of Ebola. However, as in 2014, we are quickly learning that a swift “response” to crisis is not enough. Planning for enhanced surveillance, capacity-building, training, and clinical care after in a state of emergency does not provide for effective containment and management of disease.

Within the international duty to protect, is the duty to prevent. The only way to properly prepare for the next epidemic in an effective and timely manner is through prevention. Viruses and bacteria are not new. Neither are their consequences.  Similar to Ebola, the presence of Zika is not unknown. As noted on the WHO Fact Sheet for Zika, the virus has been recorded in humans since 1952 in Uganda – over six decades ago. As mentioned in Why International Issues Must be Addressed with Cross-Disciplinary Responses: The Case of Ebola, many of the public health issues now of international concern are not newly discovered, but instead have received inadequate attention.

The lack of attention in addressing potential public health concerns such as Ebola, and now Zika, has undoubtedly resulted in missed opportunities for prevention. Without an effective international plan for prevention, we will remain consistently behind in combating global public health issues. The lesson learned from Ebola was how to plan and prepare for a proper response. Zika now teaches us that in order to reach a proper and effective response, a transition must take place: to properly prepare for emergency, we must do our best to prevent it from happening in the first place.