Killer global health threats should be treated like terrorism, says Chief Medical Officer

Sarah Knapton
The government must adopt a similar strategy for dealing with health threats as it does with terrorism, Dame Sally Davies has said - PA Archive

Britain must tackle killer health threats from abroad in the same way it handles terrorism, because deadly infections know no borders, the government’s chief medical officer has said.

In her final report before stepping down to become the first female Master of Trinity College Cambridge, Dame Sally Davies said the UK must adopt a similar approach to global health as does with its counter-terrorism (CONTEST) strategy.

The strategy brings together intelligence organisations from across the world to ‘prevent, pursue, protect and prepare’ for a terrorist attack and ensures countries act swiftly together in the event of an atrocity.

Dame Sally said Britain must adopt a similar approach to stop pandemics such as ebola reaching UK shores and called on the government to publish a set of shared global health objectives by the end of the year.

She also said that countries must work together to ensure global uptake of vaccinations or else see the resurgence of diseases that have all but been eradicated, as well as tackling other causes of ill health, such as pollution and poor diet.

“A threat in one corner of the world is a threat to anywhere else,” Professor Dame Sally told The Telegraph.

“We are only as strong as our weakest link when it comes to health.

“You only have to look at how infectious diseases can spread to understand that if [governments] are not able to cope in their own country, we will see them move across the world.

“For security in these countries and here at home, we should invest in those health systems in order to protect everyone. We are globally interconnected, if we do not attend to our global linkage we put ourselves at risk.”

The Chief Medical Officer also warned that non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, strokes and cancer are rising at an alarming rate. 

They are already the leading cause of death globally and by 2021 will overtake all others as the leading causes of death in all low income countries. 

Dame Sally warned that focusing purely on domestic health risks failing to control the ‘shifting tide’ of global threats. 

Britain already contributes expertise and support around the globe to ensure infectious diseases are contained.

NHS workers were on the frontline of the 2014 Sierra Leone Ebola outbreak, working to contain the virus, and the Public Health Rapid Support Team are now supporting efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But Dame Sally said more needed to be done to ensure countries were working together and sharing their expertise. 

Writing in the new report she said: “Infectious diseases do not recognise borders but neither do the other things that affect our health.

“To improve health, we need to look outside of the traditional health sphere and recognise the role of factors such as pollution, the spread of health endangering misinformation, antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and commercial activities (such as the creation and promotion of unhealthy foods).” 

Devi Sridhar, Professor & Chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University Medical School, who also contributed to the report, said:“Across centuries, controlling infectious diseases has continued to bring countries together. 

“Ultimately outbreaks are about humans – regardless of nationality, religion or skin colour – versus microbes, and the only way to defeat them is to work together.

“Dame Sally Davies Annual Report is a powerful reminder of the major health challenges the UK continues to face, and the importance of UK investment in the larger global health system which all countries, rich or poor, depend on.”