The spread of infectious diseases considered among the global risks of highest concern for doing business


Outbreaks of infectious disease and the associated impact are matters of global health and economic security. In 2015, the World Economic Forum considered the spread of infectious diseases among the global risks of highest concern for doing business and a worldwide risk to economic growth.

Most (60%) emerging infectious diseases, such as Zika or Ebola, are zoonoses (that is, originating from animals) and three-quarters of these come from wildlife. Certain geographical hotspots for disease emergence have been identified and there is considerable monitoring by government and other agencies to identify new potential threats.

Human activities, often associated with economic investment, generate significant environmental, social, demographic, health, and economic changes – all of which are key drivers for disease emergence and outbreaks.

As a result, companies should routinely assess the risk that diseases pose to their operations, and adopt and implement evidence-based guidelines and best practices to manage such risks. They should also invest in health programmes within the countries where they operate.

Disease modelling is one key tool available to public health practitioners and decision makers to understand infectious disease transmission, possible impacts of different control strategies and to forecast the spread of emerging microbes.

Mathematical and computational modelling are also used to prepare for forthcoming outbreaks as these models allow for different scenario development. They increasingly include an evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of different interventions or policies options. Models, however, are strongly dependent on researchers’ understanding of a phenomenon; availability and reliability of the data used to build the model; and consistent use of parameters, terms, and assumptions made to design the model.

As such, modelling represents a set of useful technical tools used in association with other public health processes. Today, accurate prediction, both for the disease type and the geographic location remain elusive. Zika is a clear example of a disease discovered in 1940s, but emerged unpredicted as a global threat only recently. Similarly, the world was focused on a possible influenza pandemic virus originating from South Asia when the swine flu pandemic began in Mexico.

Organisations should be aware of the risk posed by outbreaks and pandemics to their assets and staff worldwide. Infectious disease outbreak response is ultimately enacted by national authorities and may differ between countries in approach and effectiveness. A recent review found that companies that assess the risk posed by infectious diseases are more likely to invest in prevention and preparation and are consequently better able to deal with outbreaks.

The science behind pandemic prevention, preparedness and response is constantly evolving and a multi-stakeholder approach such as the Infectious Disease Risk Assessment and Management initiative, which is bringing together private and public sector with academics, allows the characterisation and management of the risk. It relies on modelling as well as informed exchange between stakeholders on country context, disease transmission and control options alongside prevention strategies for possible outbreaks.