Health and Healthcare Systems

4 lessons on human cooperation from the fight against Ebola

ebola global health

A health worker speaks to people who are waiting to receive the Ebola vaccination in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo Image: REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Kenneth C. Frazier
Executive Chairman, MSD
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • A new vaccine against Ebola is a major breakthrough.
  • It would never have existed without cooperation.
  • Health workers have used boats, bikes, drones and long hikes to get the vaccine to where it's needed.

Often, the fight against disease is slow, with gains won over years and measured in statistics and bar charts. Only rarely is there a breakthrough, when something truly new happens that dramatically changes the way the world is able to make progress in the fight for health. Such a breakthrough has happened in the war against the Ebola virus.

Since I lead MSD, you might expect me to say that the breakthrough against Ebola is a vaccine. The totality, however, is far broader than any individual intervention or contributor.

The true breakthrough in the struggle to protect the world against the Ebola virus is the unique public-private partnership that has come together to fight this killer. It's almost impossible to overstate the tenacity and strength of those in this partnership, which unites governments and the private sector, multilateral organizations and community groups, scientists, doctors, community health workers, ambulance drivers and ordinary people who do the extraordinary every day. Tragically, some members of the partnership have lost their lives trying to protect the health of their communities. They are the truest heroes of the fight.


The ultimate sacrifice

Let me cite just one example to represent all the countless acts of bravery in this fight. Dr. Richard Valery Mouzoko Kiboung, an epidemiologist with the WHO, was killed in an attack in April at the university hospital in Butembo in the North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He had left his home, and his wife and four children, to help fight a deadly virus in a country not his own - and made the ultimate sacrifice so others could live.

The partnership has far to go before we can end the threat of Ebola virus, but think how far we've come already. In regions facing intense security and resource challenges, an integrated network provides vaccination, treatment, epidemiology and countless other services to help heal and contain.

This integrated multi-sectoral model is the true breakthrough in the fight against the Ebola virus. It is a model for tackling global problems that should not begin and end with Ebola virus disease. Human cooperation is the greatest force for fighting disease and it can be the same for other major challenges the world faces.

So, what lessons have we learned about partnerships in the fight against the Ebola virus that are applicable to other global challenges? I would pick out four.

1. Effective partnerships cannot succeed without the meaningful involvement of the local community.

Whether the task is fighting a virus, fighting poverty or fighting climate change, solutions must work locally to work globally. In the fight against Ebola, the role of local communities goes far beyond that of implementers of a program. Local partners are designers, innovators, ambassadors and enablers. Their insights and creativity help ensure that programs are responsive to local needs and work in a local context.

2. The last mile is important - but so is the last inch.

In public health and in many areas, there is much focus on "the last mile" - the gap between established networks of transportation and the communities affected by outbreaks. Solving the problem of delivering vaccines in that last mile has been vital to success, and has involved the talents and ingenuity of partners across the region affected by this disease. Our partners have used boats, motorbikes and bicycles, digital phones and word of mouth, drones and long hikes - all to get vaccine where it's needed. As a result of these efforts, more than a quarter million people in the DRC have received the Ebola Zaire vaccine.

That last mile is crucial, but so too is the last inch: the distance the vaccine must travel to get into the arm of an individual at risk of infection. Traversing that last inch requires the willing participation of the individual receiving the vaccine, which in turn demands clear, effective and truthful communication. Constant and culturally relevant communication is a central part of the fight against the Ebola virus, and it's vital to success for all the major global challenges we face. Regardless of the specifics of the challenge, there will always be a "last inch" to be crossed - the tiny gap that separates a solution from the human willingness to take the actions needed to achieve it. Effective communication is the bridge across that last inch.

3. The first mile is important too.

While delivering a solution to the people who need it most is the ultimate goal of any response to a challenge, none of that is possible without crossing the first mile – the initial decision to take on a challenge or join a fight. For companies, there is always a financial responsibility to be economically viable, but there is also a moral responsibility to be good corporate citizens. For MSD, this means dedicating resources of time, skill and money to developing and delivering a vaccine against the Ebola virus. For other companies, this first mile has meant investing in clean water programs, education, environmental remediation, or any of a host of pressing global needs. As leaders of companies, we are enmeshed in a world fighting so many challenges, and all of us need to consider which first mile we will cross in order to help.

4. Great partnerships unite opposites - and that isn’t always easy.

The fight against the Ebola virus brings together governments, advocacy organizations, private companies, local partners, academic institutions, and many diverse partners. We often have different backgrounds, different views, and different ways of working. There are lots of issues on which we disagree.

But a great partnership doesn't require that all the partners agree or are identical. A great partnership means finding ways to work around, beyond, or beside your differences to find common ground. It means finding ways of working that can accommodate many different views and backgrounds. Ultimately, it means recognizing that what you're trying to do together is more important than whatever individual agenda you may have.

Ebola health quote

Perhaps the greatest lesson from the fight against the Ebola virus, then, and the one that unites all these observations, is that great partnerships bring together disparate elements to form a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. We're far from finished in the Ebola fight, just as we're far from finished in the struggle to achieve other important societal goals, but if we harness the greatest power on earth - human cooperation - we will significantly increase our chance to succeed against the many challenges we face.

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