WHO alarms on health threats

Friday, August 24, 2007

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned against growing public health insecurity, following the emergence of new diseases.

In our increasingly interconnected world, new diseases are emerging at an unprecedented rate, often with the ability to cross boarders rapidly and spread, according to World Health Report, A Safer Future.

Since 1967, at least 39 new pathogens have been identified, including HIV, Ebola haemorrhagic fever, Marburg fever and SRS. Other centuries-old threats, such as pandemic influenza, malaria and tuberculosis continue to pose a threat to health, through a combination of mutation, rising resistance to antimicrobial medicines and weak health systems.

The report blamed these health problems on inadequate investment in public health resulting from a false sense of security in the absence of infectious disease outbreaks; unexpected policy changes, such as a decision temporarily to halt immunisation in Nigeria, which led to the re-emergence of polio cases; conflict situations when forced migration obliges people to live in overcrowded situations, unhygienic and impoverished conditions heightening the risk of epidemics; microbial evolution and antibiotic resistance;  and animal husbandry and food processing threats, such as the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and Nipad virus.

Pandemic influenza is described as the most feared threat to health security in our times. The report sets out the WHO strategic action plan to respond to a pandemic, draw 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). New health threats have also emerged, linked to potential terrorist attacks, chemical incidents and radio nuclear accidents.

"Giving today’s universal vulnerability to these threats, better security calls for global solidarity," said Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO). "International public health security is both a collective aspiration and a mutual responsibility. The new watchwords are diplomacy, cooperation, transparency and preparedness.


The report then outlined that global pubic health security depends on international cooperation and the willingness of all countries to act effectively and participate in tackling new and emerging threats.

The report concludes with six key recommendations to secure the highest level of global public health security: full implementation of the revised International Health Regulations (IHR 2005) by all countries; global cooperation in surveillance and outbreak and alert and response; open sharing of knowledge, technologies and materials, including viruses and other laboratory samples, necessary of optimise secure global public heath; global responsibility for capacity-building within the public health infrastructure of all countries; cross-sector collaboration within governments; increased  global and national resources for training surveillance, laboratory capacity, response, networks, and prevention campaigns.

The need for global solidarity is especially clear in the response to outbreaks of infectious diseases. This month, WHO has been closely involved in the response to an outbreak of Marburg fever in Uganda. Together with partners in the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) including the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Medicines sans Frontiers, the Uganda Virus Research Institute, and African Field epidemiology network and local NGOs, WHO is supporting the Ministry of Health to strengthen active surveillance, contact- tracing, infection control, logistic, and social mobilisation activities in an effort to contain the outbreak.

The team is carefully studying surrounding the initial transmission, in the hope of improving understanding of where the virus resides in nature and how is passes to humans, improving the ability to predict and prevent outbreaks in the future.

“WHO and its partners are closely involved in the global response to H5N! avian influenza, which has caused huge outbreaks in poultry and at least 308 human since it was first isolated in human in 1997”.

The report traces the history of efforts to contain infectious diseases, including plague, cholera and smallpox. It describes the evolution of outbreak surveillance and response activities of international partnerships of agencies and technical institutions. These include GOARN, the chemical and environmental health incident alert and response system, and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which is supporting surveillance of many other vaccine-preventable diseases.

The report shows how and why diseases are increasingly threatening global public health security. High and rapid mobility of people is one factor. Airlines now carry more than 12 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.

The revised International Health Regulations (2005) are based on the premise that no country can fully protect its citizens in isolation or through traditional border controls. The IHR 2005 is a set of rules that governs how countries should assess and report to WHO public health emergencies of potential international concern. The broad definitions of "public health risk" "disease" and "event" ensure that risks caused by the accidental or intentional release of pathogens or chemical or radio nuclear materials are covered by the Regulations.

Since the IHR 2005 entered into force, almost all the 193 WHO Member States have established their national IHR forcal points with 179 designations. Since then WHO has been receiving alerts of health events on a regular basis, conducting joint risk assessments with the notifying State (s) and sharing real-time information with other Member States.

Author: Written by Ebrima Jaw Manneh
Source: The Daily Observer Newspaper