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Concealing Disease: Trade and Travel Barriers and the Timeliness of Outbreak Reporting

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Slow outbreak reporting by states is a key challenge to effectively responding to global health emergencies like Zika, Ebola, and H1N1. Current policy focuses on improving domestic outbreak surveillance capacity globally in order to reduce reporting lags. However, governments also face economic and political incentives to conceal outbreaks, and these incentives largely are ignored in policy discussions. In spite of the policy implications for outbreak response, the “capacity” and “will” explanations have not been systematically examined. Analysis of a dataset coding the timeliness of outbreak reporting from 1996–2014 finds evidence that states’ unwillingness to report—rather than just their inability—leads to delayed reporting. The findings suggest that though building surveillance capacity is critical, doing so may not be sufficient to reduce reporting lags. Policy aimed at encouraging rapid reporting must also mitigate the associated economic and political costs.

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