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UW Researchers Urge New Approach to Pandemic Prevention

December 19, 2014

A University of Wyoming economics faculty member and a recent UW Ph.D. graduate are among the authors of a scientific paper calling for increased global efforts to fight emerging diseases before they can spread significantly.

The article is based on Jamison Pike’s dissertation research in the Department of Economics and Finance at UW, directed by Professor David Finnoff.

Pike, now working as an economist with the New York City-based EcoHealth Alliance, and Finnoff joined colleagues from EcoHealth Alliance in writing the article that appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. TIME magazine featured this research in its most recent issue, stating: “… Experts estimate the world will see about five new emerging infectious diseases each year and that we need new prevention strategies to cut economic losses.”

Using economic modeling to assess responses to outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola, the researchers make an economic case for immediate efforts to reduce the underlying drivers of disease emergence -- and the human behaviors that cause it to spread.

“Our findings illustrate the significant savings that can be generated by global initiatives to mitigate disease emergence,” Finnoff says. “Mitigation policies are worth implementing even if they are minimally effective in reducing emerging disease risk.”

The World Health Organization reports that the number of people infected with Ebola has surpassed 17,000, with more than 6,000 deaths. The two-year financial cost of Ebola may reach $32.6 billion, according to the World Bank.

Meanwhile, estimates of the economic cost of an influenza pandemic range from $374 billion to $7.3 trillion, with the potential for 142 million deaths globally, according to the paper.

The researchers note that 60 percent of all human diseases and 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases involve animal-to-human transmission. As a result, the underlying factors that contribute to disease outbreaks result primarily from human population growth and environmental changes -- which increase the risk of emergence of viral, parasitic and bacterial diseases in humans and animals.

Strategies exist to reduce the underlying causes of disease emergence -- such as increasing farm biosecurity, promoting behavioral change in at-risk populations and detecting pathogens in wildlife -- but they require collaborative efforts among governmental and intergovernmental agencies, the researchers say. Instead, most current pandemic control programs are reactive and focus on reducing the impact of a pathogen after it has infected many.

“Our economic modeling shows us the new approach to address emerging diseases at the source is the right long-term strategy,” Pike says.

If governments and other agencies immediately focus their policies on reducing the likelihood of an emerging disease originating, they could save between $344 billion and $360.8 billion over the next century, the article concludes.

It can be viewed at www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/12/12/1412661112.abstract.

Finnoff says Pike’s research “demonstrates the quality of both our UW graduate students and the training they receive.”


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