WHO issues wake up call against microbial threats

June 17, 1999

New Report Claims Viral and Bacterial Activity Are Threatening National Security, Slowing Economic Growth. Six Germs are the Biggest Killers of Families and Workforce

Press Conference set at National Press Club June 17 at 9:30 to release Report

WASHINGTON, D.C. The World Health Organization (WHO) today warned that the world has dangerously underestimated the threat bacteria and viruses are posing to national security and economic growth, and may soon miss its opportunity to protect people from this risk.

According to a global report released today by WHO, one in every two deaths among young working age adults and children worldwide are caused by just six infectious diseases: AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis (TB), measles, diarrhoeal diseases and acute respiratory infections such as pneumonia. In 1998, these six diseases accounted for nearly 90 percent of all deaths due to infectious diseases among those under 44 years of age.

"The World Health Organization is today issuing a wake-up to the world's governments, decision makers and the private sector to take action against infectious diseases before it is too late, and before the window of opportunity we have to protect ourselves is lost" said Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of the World Health Organization.

According to the new WHO report, Removing Obstacles to Healthy Development, the tools to prevent deaths from each of these six diseases now cost under $20 per person at risk, and in most cases under $0.35 Yet these diseases still caused over 11 million deaths in 1998.

"A person can be cured or protected from each one of these diseases for less than the cost of a few bottles of aspirin," said Dr Brundtland "In fact, half of these killer diseases can be stopped for under 35 US cents, less than the cost of this morning's newspaper."

VVHO is concerned that the world's ability to affordably stop these epidemics might soon disappear as drug resistance, the emergence of new diseases, and increased travel make control efforts increasingly difficult.

As a result of increasing drug-resistance, TB medicines are no longer effective in up to 20 percent of patients in some parts of the world. Two leading anti-malaria medicines have become ineffective in many Asian countries and a third is effective in only half of patients. Additionally, new diseases continue to appear at a rapid rate in all corners of the world. As the volume of international travel increases by 50 percent every decade, prospects for containing future outbreaks are decreasing.

"If these trends continue and our level of response remains the same, our ability to stop their international spread might soon disappear" said Dr David Heymann, WHO Executive Director in charge of communicable diseases. "We are moving towards a future full of new opportunities for diseases to quickly spread from one continent to another. Simultaneously, drug resistance is sending us back in history to a time when we lacked medicines to cure some diseases."

{NOTE: Dr. Heyman is scheduled to release the report at a press conference at the National Press Club at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, June 17}

According to the WHO report, just three diseases -- malaria, TB and most recently AIDS -- have claimed six times as many lives in the past fifty years as military and civilian casualties from all wars over the same period. Yet strategies to defend the world against these three diseases receive less than 2% of the funding devoted to global military expenditures.

The WHO report also describes the negative consequences infectious diseases have on economic growth. The report argues that while good health is often a result of economic development and improved living standards, the opposite is also true; that the control of infectious diseases removes barriers to economic growth.

"Infectious diseases are causing half of all deaths among families and young labourers, farmers, supervisors and shop owners around the world," said Dr Brundtland. How can anyone -families or communities -- reach their economic potential with this burden? Economic development goes hand in hand with good health."

According to the WHO report, greater political support is required to overcome the threat of infectious diseases. This includes increased financial support for control, surveillance and research activities; adoption of WHO-recommended health policies by all countries; and the involvement of other government sectors -- besides the health sector -- in the prevention and control of infectious diseases.

"Unlike our ancestors of hundreds of years ago, who were at the mercy of bubonic plague, syphillis, cholera and other diseases, we know both the causes and the solutions for most of the epidemics that affect us," said Dr Brundtland. "How will history refer to us if we fail to control infectious diseases at the beginning of the new millennium?"
For further information, journalists can contact Jon Lidén, Public Relations, WHO, Geneva. Telephone 41-22-791-3982. Fax 41-22-791-4858. Email: lidenj@who.ch.
Daniel Epstein, Information Office, PAHO/WHO, Washington D.C., 202-974-3459 tel., 202-974-3143 fax, epsteind@paho.org email

All WHO Press Releases, Fact Sheets and Features as well as other information on this subject can be obtained on Internet on the WHO home page http://www.who.ch/

Pan American Health Organization

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