15. WHO shall promote nations’ use of Incident Management System for early detection and response to pandemics

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Rapporteur: Ronald St. John

Basic Premise:

There will be pandemics at some time in the future.

Small outbreaks of infectious diseases occur daily throughout the world. Depending on the transmission potential for specific or unknown pathogens, a small cluster of infected people can rapidly become an epidemic at a local, district/provincial or national level. In the absence of a comprehensive and internationally accepted definition of what constitutes a pandemic, for purposes of this paper, a pandemic is an epidemic that is occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people with a high degree of morbidity and mortality. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3127276/

Why are pandemics inevitable?

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I heard – though I am uncertain the true extent of this on the environment and fires – that a significant factor within the California and Portuguese contexts were the introduction of eucalyptus trees in the 1850s. These trees – introduced from Australia – became quite popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – and were planted in mass groves. However – the trees are very flammable, invasive, and are full of volatile oils that burn hotter and more intense than endemic ecosystems – such as California’s oak woodlands. The endemic oak woodlands require low-intensity fires to maintain surrounding savannah ecosystems. However, the eucalyptus trees throw this balance off – creating very, very intense and high-heat fires – which cause widespread damage to surrounding areas and are difficult to control. Perhaps mitigation of the eucalyptus trees in California would help reduce the damage caused by the fires – though may not eliminate the problem.

This article offers an interesting historical analysis of the eucalyptus problem in the California context. Even in the 1920s, intense fires destroyed thousands of homes. Now researchers – such as those at UC Berkeley – are calling for intensive eucalyptus removal and revitalization of the endemic / native oak savannas and woodland ecosystems. The article further identifies there is a cultural narrative associated with the risks of eucalyptus and fire, yet little research has been conducted in the California context. I am told Portugal is experiencing similar issues with introduced eucalyptus species.

“At very high temperatures, eucalypt species release a flammable gas that mixes with air to send fireballs exploding out in front of the fire. With eucalyptus, you see these ember attacks, with huge bursts of sparks shooting out of the forests, Bowman says. “It’s just an extraordinary idea for a plant.”

Though it’s difficult to prove, Bowman suspects the trees evolved to be “uber flammable.” Sixty million years ago eucalyptus species hit on a way to recover from intense fire, he explains, using specialized structures hidden deep within their bark that allow rapid recovery through new branches, instead of re-sprouting from the roots like other trees. “They have this adaptive advantage of not having to rebuild their trunk. Whether their oil-rich foliage is also an adaptation, we don’t know.”


The Zika outbreak in French Polynesia (circa. 2013) is a prime example of why this incident system would benefit global health. Apparently, regional health offices on remote Pacific islands were reporting cases of Zika as early as 2012/2013. However, due to the remoteness and delayed communications between regional outposts and central data processing centers – it was not flagged in a timely manner. Then – in 2015 (?) the Va’a Canoe Games (and subsequently the Olympics in 2016) took place in Brazil in Latin America. This allowed a corridor for the relatively rare virus to reach the Americas – where the epidemic has gained a significant foothold.

Of interest is that Zika may have been in the equatorial Pacific since at least the 1950s – though quite rare in humans.

There seems to be huge support for Incident Management Systems in southern Africa. If you google the term, the organizations discussion and practicing it are generally located there. And they seem to have a good time together socializing. (See this photo.) Most of the other articles you find about the subject are wooden and technical. Hello, South Africa!

Several years ago a frozen reindeer in Siberia defrosted, releasing anthrax in a remote Russian village, killing over 70 people. Is there a risk of frozen, Arctic graves defrosting, and releasing diseases thought to be extinct and/or uncommon? This Anthrax case study reminded me of reports of diphtheria, smallpox, and Spanish flu in remote Arctic regions. Could pathogens be in a natural “cold storage” in old graves – an essential climate-change/pandemic time-bomb? How deep were bodies buried in the Arctic during the diphtheria, smallpox, and Spanish flu epidemics – given the levels of permafrost and remote settlements? Norway has certainly considered this risk (re: Arctic graves and diseases) – as Svalbard has prohibited people from dying on the island! That is, you are not allowed to be buried on Svalbard — and if you are gravely ill, they fly you to Oslo or Tromso for medical care. Fortunately, there is a vaccine for diphtheria – though it is unlikely one exists for Spanish flu – and there were reports several years ago that the United Nations was destroying over 90% of its smallpox vaccine in storage due to budgetary and space constraints.

In her video talk show/podcast, Ann Swidler gives a lot of credit to George W. Bush for making medication affordable in Africa for HIV/AIDS.