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Former USSR: WHO Warns Of Venereal Disease Threat From East

Prague, 7 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) today launched a campaign against the scourge of sexually transmitted diseases in Eastern Europe to coincide with World Health Day.

In a statement, the WHO said that instances of transmittable sexual diseases had exploded in nearly all the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), where the number of cases is generally between 20 and 30 times higher than ten or 20 years ago.

In particular, the WHO said the rate of transmission of the HIV virus that causes AIDS is "alarming," as a result of prostitution and unemployment. It adds that the virus, for which there is no known cure, threatens to spill over into neighboring Western European countries.

According to the WHO, the number of cases of syphilis has risen 40 times since 1989 in Russia, where the incidence is 100 times higher than the European Union (EU) average.

The WHO said holidays, business travel, and migration by workers and refugees are conspiring to spread illnesses across borders. Last year alone, 2.5 billion people crossed international borders aboard commercial flights. Another 25 million people have become refugees and millions more are migrant workers living abroad. The WHO cites increased numbers of imported syphilis cases acquired in Eastern Europe and being treated in Finland and the United Kingdom as but one example of the threat of global mobility.

As one medical doctor at the WHO's emergency disease unit put it: "Man has now become a vector of disease from one continent to another, just like insects."

The WHO campaign launched today calls for a global effort to combat venereal diseases, as well as some 30 new scourges that have been identified in the past two decades. They include Ebola Fever, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), Hepatitis C and "mad cow" disease. For many of these illnesses, there are no treatments, cures or vaccines.

Of particular concern is the new outbreak of typhoid fever which Tajikistan has faced since January 1997. According to the world health body, the disease has taken 46 lives to date and is still spreading. It is estimated there are currently around 5,000 cases being treated in the Central Asian nation, with the fear that number could easily rise to 60,000.

Just last month, the WHO issued a communique of the most urgent measures needed to be taken to prevent further deterioration of the situation. The measures include the following: the supply of appropriate drugs for treatment, the provision of disinfectants, the treatment of drinking water and community education on preventitive personal hygiene.

The cause of contamination in Tajikistan has not been identified, but it has been reported that water in the capital, Dushanbe, has not been treated for at least three months.

Similar concern is focused on the tuberculosis (TB) epidemic, which the WHO says is getting worse, particularly in Eastern Europe. After decades of steady decline, the WHO says TB deaths have levelled off and have even begun increasing in 20 of 27 Eastern European and Former Soviet Union countries. Most alarming is that this increase is reportedly occurring without extensive immigration or HIV infection in the region.

The WHO believes there may only be a window of opportunity, lasting two to three years, to revitalize the region's health systems and TB control efforts before the TB epidemic begins to grow to catastrophic proportions.

A recent WHO press release cites that TB and HIV are on what it called "a collision course."

Meanwhile, a 1991 study of multidrug-resistant TB in New York City found that nearly a third of all TB patients were resistant to at least one anti-TB drug, and nearly 20 percent were resistant to the two most effective drugs used to treat the deadly bacilli that travels through air. Very few data is available on how widely these multi-drug resistant strains have spread in other parts of the world. But one study has indicated that the magnitude of the drug resistance problem in Kazakhstan might easily rival New York City's.

According to the WHO, tuberculosis is likely to be the leading cause of death among HIV-positive people by the end of this century.

After many years in decline, plague, diptheria, yellow fever and cholera are also on the increase because of crumbling health and sanitation systems, especially in the former Soviet bloc. Food-related illnesses have also increased, because of added worldwide exports and changes in the production and handling of food items.

Ironically, the WHO says earlier medical successes in wiping out diseases like smallpox in the 1970's and confidence in the strength of antibiotics are partly to blame. It says medical funds and expertise were switched elsewhere and public health authorities were taken by surprise by the subsequent increase in infectious diseases.

In the words of WHO Director General Hiroshi Nakahima of Japan, "Infectious diseases are with us...they respect no frontiers." Nakahima urges world governments to begin today in putting more money into the fight against infectious diseases that kill nearly 50,000 people a day.