Disaster Relief Depends on Secure Supply Chains

Disaster Relief Depends on Secure Supply Chains
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A FedEx warehouse might save your life.

When hurricanes are approaching, FedEx allows the Red Cross to stock emergency supplies in its warehouses. By pre-positioning these supplies, disaster relief workers drastically reduce the time it takes to get medicines and other lifesaving aid into victims' hands.

Similar partnerships between private companies, humanitarian organizations, and government agencies are flourishing across the globe. They'll prove vital to stopping the next pandemic, whether it's a renewed Ebola outbreak, an antibiotic-resistant superbug, or a frightening new disease. That's why the United Nations should encourage and prioritize these partnerships, rather than marginalize them.

Last year, a UN panel recommended weakening intellectual property rights, in a bid to speed up the process by which medicines lose patent protections and become cheaply available as generics. The panel hoped that this would improve access to medicines in poor nations.

That policy would do little to increase access. A better solution would promote global private and public partnerships that have been proven to save lives.

Past disasters show that patients fare best when governments, the private sector, and the NGO community coordinate and plan their responses before a disaster strikes. Consider the failures that occurred during Hurricane Katrina, when government and private aid organizations didn't stockpile enough food, water, and medical equipment in the Superdome and other gathering points for people escaping the floodwaters. Likewise, officials didn't preposition supplies ahead of Typhoon Haiyan, a violent storm that devastated the Philippines in 2013.

Compare those failed responses to the vastly more effective response to Hurricane Matthew, which struck the Southeast last fall. My organization, Healthcare Ready, coordinated with government agencies, other nonprofits, private sector companies, and shelters to help patients access medicines and health care. We helped gather donations of medicines from the private sector and ensured the deliveries made it to patients in areas affected by flooding and power outages.

Ensuring access to medicines in the United States during times of crisis is a challenge, even with our advanced infrastructure, supply of trained health care workers, and technological advantages. Doing so in the developing world is more difficult by an order of magnitude.

During the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa, pharmaceutical companies and others donated more vaccines and medicines than Liberian health authorities could store and distribute safely. International NGOs stepped up to the plate and coordinated medicine deliveries from drug companies with health authorities in surrounding countries. The partnerships ensured the right supplies went where they were needed, saving countless lives.

Of course, if these various partners waited until disaster struck to strengthen health care supply chains, it'd be too late. That's why drug companies are helping train doctors and nurses in countries like Ethiopia and equip them with new technologies during normal times. The improved coordination and trust that results from these relationships will prove vital if and when disaster strikes. 

When brought into the process from the beginning, the private sector has been a willing ally in helping the world's patients receive the medical care they need. The United Nations should foster such partnerships. Doing so will ensure that disaster relief efforts are coordinated and that first responders connect patients with the medicines they need.

Emily Lord serves as executive director of Healthcare Ready, a non-profit that works to strengthen healthcare supply chains in preparation for natural and man-made disasters.

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