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Infectious diseases are spreading around the world faster than ever, says the World Health Organization, and new diseases are emerging at the unprecedented rate of one a year.
WHO has appealed in its annual world health report for international cooperation to tackle infectious diseases, which it says are a serious threat to public health worldwide. The disease situation is “anything but stable,” the report says.
Several factors have helped accelerate the spread of diseases around the world: the increasing ease of international travel (each year airlines carry more than two billion passengers), population growth, resistance to drugs, under-resourced healthcare systems, intensive farming practices, and degradation of the environment.
“A sudden health crisis in one region of the world is now only a few hours away from becoming a public health emergency in another,” it says.
The biggest fear is that other new diseases on the scale of AIDS or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) will emerge. The report says, “It would be extremely naive and complacent to assume that there will not be another disease like AIDS, another Ebola, or another SARS, sooner or later.”
Also, it says, new diseases are emerging at an unprecedented rate, often with the ability to cross borders rapidly.
Since 1967 at least 39 new pathogens have been identified, including HIV, Ebola haemorrhagic fever, Marburg fever, and SARS.
At the same time, old infections, such as pandemic flu, malaria, and tuberculosis, continue to pose a threat to public health through a combination of mutation, rising resistance to antimicrobial drugs, and weak health systems.
The key recommendations of the report include:
Margaret Chan, WHO's director general, said, “Given today's universal vulnerability to these threats, better security calls for global solidarity.
“International public health security is both a collective aspiration and a mutual responsibility. The new watchwords are diplomacy, cooperation, transparency, and preparedness.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health in England said, “We are aware of the issues raised in the WHO report and strongly support the approach of managing these risks through cooperation.
“The chief medical officer's annual report highlighted the need for the UK government to take a more joined-up approach to global health issues, and we are leading on the development of a cross government global health strategy to follow this up.
“This will underline the importance of helping developing countries to prevent and prepare for infectious diseases like pandemic flu and SARS.”
A Safer Future: Global Public Health Security in the 21st Century is available at www.who.int.