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The Epidemic Divide

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Infectious diseases cause close to 14 million deaths every year worldwide. But the mortality rate should not be the only factor considered and can even be misleading. Even though noncommunicable diseases are now responsible for the majority of deaths worldwide, this report shows that communicable diseases are still indeed the dominant burden in poor and vulnerable settings. This further increases the inequality for health and care between rich and poor countries.

Red Cross Red Crescent operations responding to epidemics more than tripled between 2004 and 2007. The number of people helped in these operations increased by 15.4 per cent between 2007 and 2008. Such a rise can indicate improved capacities but also shows that outbreaks are still a major burden, especially in developing countries.

Between January 2006 and May 2009, more than 41 million people needed assistance from Red Cross and Red Crescent societies throughout the world because they were affected by epidemics. The total number of people helped for the first four months of 2009 was already more than 10.6 million, already on target to surpass the 16.3 million epidemic-affected people helped in 2008.

There is no easy formula to fight epidemics. Reducing their impact involves addressing complex issues that include prevention of disease, empowering communities, better access to health services at the community level, availability of health personnel and better infrastructure (especially for water and sanitation). Having a purely emergency response approach in responding to epidemics is costly and will not stop them from happening again. Only long-term action addressing the roots of the problem can robustly improve the situation. It is essential to inform communities about dangers and disseminate simple prevention messages that can save many lives. Working in partnership is also essential to reach lasting results.

In a global situation where resources for tackling epidemics of infectious diseases are scarce, it is essential to channel those resources smartly and into interventions that will not only provide treatment but will also stimulate behavioural change that will lead to a culture of prevention.

Complacency in developed countries regarding epidemics is a major threat in itself. The re-emergence of diseases such as measles in western Europe shows that if the growing burden of communicable diseases in developing countries is ignored, there is a high risk that epidemics will affect developed countries with predictably severe consequences.