UN Urges Global Cooperation Against New Diseases

GENEVA, Switzerland, August 23, 2007 (ENS) - New forms of illness are emerging at an unprecedented rate often with the ability to cross borders rapidly and spread in an increasingly interconnected world, the United Nations health agency warned in its annual report today.

"Given today's universal vulnerability to these threats, better security calls for global solidarity," said Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, WHO. "International public health security is both a collective aspiration and a mutual responsibility. The new watchwords are diplomacy, cooperation, transparency and preparedness."

World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan (Photo courtesy WHO)
Since 1967, at least 39 new pathogens have been identified, including HIV, Ebola haemorrhagic fever, Marburg fever and SARS, which emerged in China in 2003 and spread rapidly as far as Canada, infecting more than 8,000 people, over 800 of them fatally, before it was brought under control.

Today's highly mobile human society is a central reason why diseases spread more quickly today than ever before. Airlines now carry more than two billion passengers a year, enabling people and the diseases that travel with them to pass from one country to another in a matter of hours.

The potential health and economic impact was seen in 2003 with SARS, which cost Asian countries an estimated US$60 billion of gross expenditure and business losses.

New health threats have also emerged, linked to potential terrorist attacks, chemical incidents and radionuclear accidents.

Since 1951, when WHO issued its first set of legally binding regulations aimed at preventing the international spread of disease, "Dependence on chemicals has increased, as has awareness of the potential hazards for health and the environment," said Dr. Chan.

Child plays with ducks in Tan Lap, Vietnam (Photo by Egui)
"Industrialization of food production and processing, and globalization of marketing and distribution mean that a single tainted ingredient can lead to the recall of tons of food items from scores of countries," she said. "In a particularly ominous trend, mainstay antimicrobials are failing at a rate that outpaces the development of replacement drugs."

Other older threats, such as pandemic influenza, malaria and tuberculosis, continue to pose a threat to public health through a combination of mutation, rising resistance to antimicrobial medicines and weak health systems, Chan said.

The report, "A safer future: global public health security in the 21st century," calls pandemic influenza the most feared threat to health security in our times. Experts worry that the current bird flu virus, which has so far infected 321 people, killing 194 of them, could mutate to a form that lends itself to easy human-to-human transmission.

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920, which spread easily between humans, is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people. The experts say a new flu pandemic is not a question of if but of when.

At Thailand's Siriraj Hospital, a technician adds tuberculosis mycobacteria from an existing culture onto a new medium slide as part of a test for drug resistance. (Photo by Andy Crump courtesy WHO/TDR)
The report sets out the WHO strategic action plan to respond to a pandemic, draws attention to the need for stronger health systems and for continued vigilance in managing the risks and consequences of the international spread of polio and the newly emerging strain of extensively drug-resistant TB (XDR-TB).

Some of the human factors behind public health insecurity include inadequate investment in public health resulting from a false sense of security in the absence of infectious disease outbreaks.

There are disruptive unexpected policy changes, such as a decision temporarily to halt polio immunization in northern Nigeria in 2003, which led to the re-emergence of polio cases; and conflicts where forced migration obliges people to live in overcrowded, unhygienic and impoverished conditions, heightening the risk of epidemics.

Other factors include microbial evolution and antibiotic resistance as well as animal husbandry and food processing threats such as the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE, and Nipah virus, discovered in 1999. Named after the location where it was first detected in Malaysia, this virus has caused disease in animals and in humans, through contact with infectious animals.

The WHO report recommends include global cooperation in surveillance and outbreak alert and response; open sharing of knowledge, technologies and materials, including viruses and other laboratory samples, necessary to optimize secure global public health; and global responsibility for capacity building within the public health infrastructure of all countries.

In a departure from past strategies, WHO's revised International Health Regulations of 2005 moves away from a focus on passive barriers at borders, airports and seaports to a strategy of proactive risk management.

This strategy aims to detect a problem in the earliest possible stage and stop it at the source - before it has a chance to become an international threat.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.