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Ghana’s Swift Lassa Fever Response Highlights Global Success

IN February 2023, a market trader in Accra, Ghana, tragically succumbed to severe bleeding caused by Lassa fever, a deadly disease spread by rats. Shortly after, her healthcare provider also fell ill. Public health officials quickly identified the cause, prompting a rapid response from the Ghana Health Service. They tracked over 200 contacts of the infected trader and educated the public on the disease’s symptoms. Within weeks, their decisive actions identified 27 additional cases and successfully contained the outbreak, preventing its spread to neighbouring countries and averting further fatalities.

This effective response in Ghana is one of the many examples highlighted in the newly released Epidemics that Didn’t Happen report by Resolve to Save Lives. The report celebrates six successful outbreak responses in 2023, demonstrating the transformative impact of sustained investment in epidemic preparedness.

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‘Preparedness works. We can change the trajectory of an outbreak when we invest in preparing for it and responding rapidly after it has been detected,’ said Dr. Tom Frieden, President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives. ‘While the hard work of epidemic preparedness and health protection often goes unnoticed, it can mean the difference between a small outbreak and a large epidemic.’

The report chronicles other notable instances where public health workers stopped potential epidemics, including cholera in Bangladesh, dengue fever in Somalia, H5N1 (bird flu) in Finland, Neethling disease in Cambodia, and leptospirosis in Vanuatu. In each case, investments in health systems saved lives, prevented human suffering, and safeguarded livelihoods. The report emphasises key lessons that can be applied globally to any health threat:

Trusted health systems: Effective health systems respond to local community needs, building deep, trusting relationships over many years. For example, in Finland, strong collaboration between human and animal health officials and fur farmers was pivotal in a rapid response to an H5N1 outbreak on fur farms.

Timeliness: Quick responses to outbreaks result in fewer deaths and lower economic costs. In Bangladesh, a joint assessment and response team receives alerts within 24 hours of any suspected or confirmed cholera case in Rohingya refugee camps, facilitating swift action.

Community involvement: From healthcare workers to farmers, the actions of individuals play a crucial role in outbreak detection and response. In Cambodia, community rangers in a wildlife sanctuary spotted the first case of Neethling disease in wild cattle, helping to stop its spread.

The report also addresses the growing threat of climate change, noting that several outbreaks were associated with severe weather events like cyclones and floods. With extreme weather expected to become more common, the need for responsive health systems is more urgent than ever.

‘While we witnessed successful responses to disease outbreaks last year, there are far too many that we are still not ready for,’ said Amanda McClelland, Senior Vice President, Prevent Epidemics at Resolve to Save Lives. ‘Significant gaps in preparedness remain, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Leaving these gaps unchecked places all of us in danger.’

The World Bank’s new Pandemic Fund aims to bring additional resources for pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response. However, global funding remains insufficient to respond to outbreaks quickly and effectively. Recent research co-authored by Resolve to Save Lives found that approximately $124bn over five years is needed to improve global preparedness for disease threats, a modest investment compared to the estimated $20 trillion cost of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This third edition of Resolve to Save Lives’ Epidemics That Didn’t Happen report, developed in collaboration with health ministries and global health organisations including the World Health Organisation, the International Federation of the Red Cross, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, underscores the critical importance of continued investment and collaboration in epidemic preparedness to protect global health.

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