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World: Danger Of Bacteria And Viruses Underestimated, Says WHO

Washington, D.C.; 18 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - The World Health Organization (WHO) warned Thursday that the world has severely underestimated the threat bacteria and viruses pose to global economic growth.

In a report that is the first of its kind called "Removing Obstacles to Healthy Development," the WHO says that one in every two deaths among working age adults and children worldwide are caused by just six infectious diseases: AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, measles, diarrhoeal diseases, and acute respiratory infections, such as pneumonia. According to the report, these six diseases caused nearly 90 percent of all deaths due to infectious diseases among people under the age of 44.

Every hour, 1,500 people in the world will die from an infectious disease -- more than half of them children under five, the report says.

In fact, of the 53.9 million deaths around the world which occurred in 1998 from all causes, the report says infectious diseases ranked second, causing 25 percent of those deaths, trailing only cardiovascular disease which caused 31 percent of them.

The report states: "An infectious disease crisis of global proportions is today threatening hard-won gains in health and life expectancy."

During a press conference in Washington on Thursday, David Heymann, WHO's Executive Director of Communicable Diseases, said infectious diseases are having a significantly adverse impact on global economic growth. He says that repeated episodes of illness and long-term disability are a major cause of economic underdevelopment in many countries.

"This means that children -- the potential for economic development -- teenagers and young economically-productive adults are prematurely dying from infectious diseases....These deaths are lost potential for economic development."

Heymann says the tools to prevent the deaths from these six diseases now cost under $20 per person to treat, and in most cases, as little as 35 cents. But he says people are not getting the help they need because of inadequate funding of health care in developing countries; the failure of governments to prioritize; the lack of community and government collaboration; and the inability of weak health service delivery systems to reach entire populations.

According to Heymann, just three of the deadliest infectious diseases -- malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS -- have already claimed six times as many lives over the past fifty years as military and civilian casualties from all wars over the same period. But he says it is discouraging to realize that programs to eradicate or control these diseases have typically received less than two percent of the funding -- or about $15 billion in 1995 -- than that dedicated to global military expenditures -- or $864 billion in 1995.

Heymann says that infectious diseases are not just a problem for developing or poor countries. He says these diseases pose a serious threat to industrialized countries as well. Population movements, the massive growth of international travel, and the transportation of live animals and animal products have carried diseases into area where they have never been seen before, he adds.

An even more ominous development, says Heymann, is the fact that many of these diseases are now evolving into strains that are drug resistant.

According to Heymann, tuberculosis medicines are now no longer effective in up to 20 percent of patients in some parts of the world. Additionally, he says that two of the leading anti-malaria medicines have become ineffective in many Asian countries, with a third medicine effective in only half of patients.

Unfortunately, he says many governments, including those from industrialized nations, often pay less attention to the immunization and prevention strategies of diseases considered to have been conquered or controlled. As a result, unexpected tuberculosis and diphtheria epidemics have recently occurred in Europe and other industrialized nations, he explains.

For example, Heymann says that in 1996 an explosive outbreak of polio in Albania, Greece and Yugoslavia showed how easily diseases can be reintroduced into countries if immunization coverage is allowed to drop.

"If Eastern Europe had committed five years ago to stop the tuberculosis problem, to decrease the persons who were having active tuberculosis by effective and recommended therapy for tuberculosis -- they would have been able to decrease tuberculosis to levels which were manageable within the health system. That is not the case today, five years later. Up to 20 percent of some strains of tuberculosis in some areas, especially among prisoners, are resistant to multi-drug therapy. As a result, 50 times more money must be put into the control of tuberculosis."

Heymann urges governments around the world to provide more money for fighting infectious diseases, calling it a global international and economic problem.

He says there should be increased financial support for control, surveillance and research activities of infectious diseases; the adoption of WHO-recommended health policies by all countries, and expanded involvement of other government agencies -- besides the health sector -- in preventing and controlling infectious diseases.

The report concludes: "We have a window of opportunity to make dramatic progress against ancient diseases and to establish an early warning system to protect us from new and unexpected diseases. If we fail, increased drug resistance and the emergence of new bacteria and viruses threaten to make the control of infectious diseases both scientifically and economically unlikely in the future."