Serious Infectious Disease: Challenges for Security and Defence

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Conflict and post-conflict zones create particular challenges for controlling and containing infectious disease. Damage to hospitals, the degradation of healthcare infrastructure, and the loss of skilled medical personnel during conflict creates an environment in which infectious disease can emerge and spread rapidly, while failed states and those still struggling to recover from recent conflict are ill-equipped to provide healthcare systems that meet the complex needs of their populations. In addition, peacekeeping and stabilisation forces, NGOs and international aid workers can inadvertently bring infectious diseases into communities when they are at their most vulnerable.

In the last few months, the World Health Organization has declared two Public Health Emergencies of International Concern (PHEICs). The first, in May 2014, was due to the increasing number of polio cases recorded worldwide – in particular in Syria and Somalia, where the disease had previously been eradicated – and the second, in August, was in response to the outbreak of ebola in West Africa, which has since become the largest in history.

In both cases, the root cause of the emergencies has been as much to do with the geopolitics of the regions in which the outbreaks have emerged as with the characteristics of the diseases themselves. In Syria, polio re-emerged and spread during a conflict that has disrupted the childhood vaccination programme. The strain responsible originates from Pakistan, where polio remains endemic in large part due to Taliban opposition to vaccination programmes. In West Africa, ebola spread rapidly through communities with little if any modern healthcare provision and a deep mistrust of government agencies following devastating civil wars.

This conference, sponsored by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), will look at the cases outlined above with a view to identifying salient features and factors which are of a more general relevance. It will bring together a multidisciplinary audience to discuss future research requirements that will help to predict, mitigate and contain future outbreaks of serious infectious disease and ways to strengthen surveillance and response in regions where healthcare infrastructure is weak or damaged.

Some background on the conference themes is given in the recent article, “Conflict, Post-Conflict and Failed States – Challenges to Healthcare” in the RUSI Journal (October 2014, Vol. 159, No. 5) and can be accessed here:

To view the programme please click here.

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