The Economic Impact of Ebolavirus in West Africa: A Burden the Size of Iceland by Andrew L. Mariotti
Between 2014 and 2016, West Africa experienced an Ebola virus epidemic that resulted in 28,000 cases, 11,000 deaths, and a loss of up to $32.6 billion in gross domestic product. To put this in perspective, America’s 2021-2022 flu season culminated in 9 million cases, 5,000 deaths, and a loss of up to $8 billion in GDP. In other words, a single Ebola infection represents a nearly 1200 times greater economic cost, emphasizing the intense strain this disease places on West African nations.
Factors precipitating these costs are multi-faceted and stem not only from the increased morbidity of Ebola but also from structural constraints. The 16 countries of West Africa represent a GDP of $726 million and struggle with a human capital index (see figure below) of 0.40, nearly 0.17 points under the global average. Given this set of conditions, it’s no wonder a disease as serious as Ebola can lead to losses greater than the size of Iceland’s economy ($24.4 billion GDP).
While many strategies to ameliorate these issues emphasize the importance of developing new infrastructure and creating jobs, it’s worth considering how treating Ebola – and reducing the associated disease burden – could palliate a gargantuan economic burden holding this region back from development. How to accomplish this aim would require an entirely new blog post. However, the thought of what a $32.6 billion investment could return for the future growth and development of these underserved populations is worth consideration.
- Promoting Health, Preventing Disease: Is There an Economic Case?; a policy summary from the World Health Organization, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and European observatory on Health Systems and Policies. https://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/235966/e96956.pdf
- Prioritizing Health: A Prescription for Prosperity; McKinsey and Company July 2020 Report. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/prioritizing-health-a-prescription-for-prosperity
- Stein, F., & Sridhar, D. (2019). Back to the future? Health and the World Bank’s Human Capital index. BMJ, l5706. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l5706
- What barriers to effective Ebola treatment and containment would provide the greatest benefit to individuals in endemic regions were it to be realistically mitigated?
- How does the way we think about the importance of treating epidemics change when considering the economic impact it has on a country and could decreasing disease burden be an effective strategy for helping developing nations become more industrialized?
Chapter 4: Global Health and the Global Burden of Disease by Kelsey Yenney
In this chapter, a focus was placed on common terms used to describe the health of a population as well as discuss two ongoing projects that guide policymakers when setting priorities. Throughout this post I will refer to the ‘global burden of disease’; authors in this book have provided the definition as “quantity of diseases/conditions AND their impact on the population”.
Describing the health of populations is done in terms of descriptive statistics and there are many reasons to quantify the burden of disease. The health of a population must be measured and understood for the healthcare system to adequately respond. Quantifying the burden of disease allows for planning, policy making, executing delivery and program evaluation. For example (as used by the author of this chapter), the Minister of Health of Malawi may learn that there were 260 new cases of tuberculosis per 100,000 people in one year. Given that the population at the time was 15.5 million, she can plan that 40,300 people will be diagnosed and treated in her country in the coming year to achieve universal coverage of TB. Descriptive statistics allow policy makers, practitioners, and other healthcare providers to attempt to stay “one step ahead” of the ebbs and flows of epidemiology.
Understanding the burden of disease requires disease surveillance. In 1992, the World Bank commissioned WHO to quantify the global burden of disease; until that time, there was historically insufficient data with which to estimate the burden of disease in many countries, thus leading to an insufficient understanding of the global burden of diseases. In those studies, it was determined that less than 30% of the data on disease and death came from medically certified documents. A new project in 1994 (“Global Burden of Disease”) looked at 107 conditions and over 400 sequelae or secondary outcomes from disease. Diseases were grouped into different categories and countries were grouped based on their “established market economies”. Later in 1994, the term “DALY” (Disability-Adjusted Life Year) was created which describes the number of years of life that is lost or affected by disease.
When thinking about the transitions of epidemiology, Abdel Omran named four significant concepts that describe observed shifts in the types of diseases that affect a population as economic conditions improve. For example, malnutrition becomes less frequent as a country gains food security, water sanitation, etc. However, as infrastructure and economy grow, diseases caused by cigarette smoke, processed foods, etc. can increase. The four stages of population health described by Omran were as follows:
- Age of Pestilence and Famine: high mortality due to infectious disease and starvation
- Age of Receding Pandemics: life expectancy increases as food security; access to housing and clean water improves
- Age of Degenerative and Manmade Diseases: fertility rate decreases, infant mortality continues to fall; major causes of death are non-communicable diseases
- Age of Delayed Chronic Disease: primary prevention of disease
The above stages were used by policymakers to create a prioritized stepwise process to promote the cheapest and easiest approach to targeting a country’s biggest threat based on where they “fell within the stages”. However, diseases do not occur in a stepwise approach and each country has a diverse range of disease burden. All nations, no matter the GDP, must prevent and plan for infectious disease, mental health, non-communicable disease, etc.
In 1977, Milton Weinsten and William Stason proposed a formula that became known as cost-effectiveness to make choices between different medical interventions. They proposed that a health intervention was only cost-effective if it was to be under 3x the per capita health costs. This meant that in the US, for example, at the time, a health intervention would be cost-effective if it was less than several thousand dollars because the per capita health expenditure of the US healthcare system is high. However, in impoverished countries, a health intervention would need to fall within $5-15 to be deemed cost-effective. This does not fall anywhere close to the ideals of equity. Using cost-effectiveness as a sole model to reduce global burden of disease severely limits the right to health as it does not consider the many aspects of disease.
- What are some conditions/public health concerns that may not be prevalent at the time but can be planned for?
- For example, no matter what stage of population health a country may be in, infrastructure for flooding may be put in place. What are some major limitations you can see with the proposed cost-effectiveness model?
- What are some ways that countries are or could be dealing with increasing chronic disease in settings still with large burdens of transmissible disease?
As you can imagine, our mentees had a wonderful discussion surrounding these two topics! We are thrilled to be able to present a brief summary of their work here. Please stay tuned for details about our upcoming meetings. Connect with us through one of our contact options listed below if you are interested in attending!
Thank you to our authors and presenters!
Blog Editorial Team
- Drame, M.L., P. Ferrinho, and M.R.O. Martins, Impact of the recent Ebola epidemic with pandemic potential on the economies of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and other West African countries. Pan Afr Med J, 2021. 40: p. 228.
- de Courville, C., et al., The economic burden of influenza among adults aged 18 to 64: A systematic literature review. Influenza Other Respir Viruses, 2022. 16(3): p. 376-385.
- Joia Mukherjee. An Introduction to Global Health Delivery : Practice, Equity, Human Rights. Oxford University Press; 2018. Chapter 4: Global Health and the Global Burden of Disease
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