Preventing Epidemics: The Next Agenda for Women’s Health and Rights

From May 16 to 19 this year, advocates from around the world are coming together in Copenhagen for the Women Deliver conference. As they work to improve the lives of women and girls, we’re spotlighting their work and experiences here on the Ms. blog. This post originally appeared on the Women Deliver blog. Republished with permission.

When 18-year-old Ianka Barbosa was 7 months pregnant, an ultrasound showed the baby had an abnormally small head, a dreaded sign of microcephaly due to Zika infection. Upon hearing the news, Ianka’s husband fled. In her poor neighborhood of Campina Grande, Brazil, Ianka soon became a young mother alone.

As Ianka’s baby Sophia grows, she may never walk, or talk. She could develop seizures before she reaches six months. By the end of the year there may be a staggering 3,000 Sophias in Brazil—mostly in the poorest places.

Epidemics erase the gains women have achieved. The world has suffered a series of “Zikas”—virtually unknown diseases that seemed to come from nowhere and explode with devastating consequences for families and entire countries—before Zika, Ebola, SARS, AIDS, and others.

Epidemics don’t just leave behind a death toll. They can demolish the gains women have made in maternal, newborn, child, adolescent, and reproductive health—gains that have been propelled by women’s rights and empowerment.

In West Africa alone, Ebola has erased 15 to 20 years of progress by women for themselves and their children. The epidemic decimated the already scarce workforce, killing doctors, nurses and midwives by the hundreds. With fewer health workers, the World Bank warns of an additional 4000 maternal deaths and 14,000 child deaths each year in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

When epidemics rage, women suffer—and lead. At the height of Liberia’s Ebola epidemic, Garmai Sumo—a Liberian Red Cross worker featured in the extraordinary HBO documentary, Body Team 12—led in halting the spread of Ebola by helping carry over 500 bodies to safe and dignified burial. Despite knowing just one mistake could leave her fatally infected, Miss Sumo said, “Til Ebola leaves my country, I will not stop.” In the village of Parker Corner, Liberia, 70-something Mama Tumeh and her granddaughters led in keeping their village Ebola-free by going from home to home teaching hygiene and prevention.

Under unspeakably horrible conditions these women—and countless more—led in the fight against Ebola, sometimes with no more than a bucket of water, bleach, and relentless determination.


Sadly, many health systems are unable to provide quality primary care, let alone defend against the next killer disease. Some health systems are so ill-equipped and unwelcoming that they are feared by the very people they are meant to serve—especially women living in conditions of social and economic inequity.

We can stop epidemics and provide quality primary care. To do so we must dramatically increase our focus and investment in health workers, especially at the community level; equip them to provide maternal and child care, family planning, emergency contraception and other essential health services; and train workers to detect and contain disease outbreaks before they become murderous epidemics.

We have the power to prevent tomorrow’s epidemics. It’s time to ask ourselves how many looming “Zikas” are we prepared to accept—especially when we know how to prevent them. Here are three things you can do now:

First, find out how your community and your country are preparing for the next disease outbreak.

Second, make the fact that we can end epidemics a part of your personal conversations and political agenda.

Third, stay informed through the No More Epidemics Campaign and urge others to do the same. This campaign provides a must-read blueprint to ensure people around the world have strong health systems and are protected from epidemics.

As we meet here in Copenhagen, women like Ianka are holding babies like Sophia, and wonder what the future holds for them. Their anguish could have been prevented. It was not.

We can, and we must, end epidemics—forever.

Photo by Aurelie Marrier d’Unienvil courtesy of Women Deliver and licensed by AP.


Jonathan D. Quick, MD, MPH, is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Management Sciences for Health ( and the author of The End of Epidemics: The Looming Threat to Humanity and How to Stop It (forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in 2017).