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Global spread of disease threatens public health, says WHO

23 August 2007

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Global public health security depends on international cooperation and the willingness of all countries to act effectively in tackling new and emerging threats, says a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO).

This year’s World health report, A safer future: global public health security in the 21st century, suggests international collaboration and knowledge sharing to secure the highest level of global public health security.

The WHO says that, in our increasingly interconnected world, new diseases are emerging at an unprecedented rate, often with the ability to cross borders rapidly and spread.

Since 1967, at least 39 new pathogens have been identified, including HIV, Ebola haemorrhagic fever, Marburg fever and SARS.

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.

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

The WHO and its partners are closely involved in the global response to H5N1 avian influenza, which has caused huge outbreaks in poultry and at least 308 human deaths since it was first isolated in humans in 1997.

The report outlines some of the human factors behind public health insecurity, including inadequate investment in public health, unexpected policy changes (such as a decision temporarily to halt immunisation in Nigeria, which led to the re-emergence of polio cases), and conflict situations when forced migration obliges people to live in overcrowded, unhygienic and impoverished conditions.

World Health Organization