Fifty-fifth Session of the WHO Regional Committee
13 to 17 September 2004, Shanghai, China
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that another new threat to global health, originating in animals and passed on to humans, is likely to emerge in the future.
"Last year it was severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS); this year it was avian influenza," said Dr Shigeru Omi, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific*, in his report to WHO's governing body, the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, meeting in Shanghai, China. "We can be virtually certain that zoonotic diseases will continue to emerge. We must be ready for them."
Dr Omi told the Regional Committee that WHO and affected Member States were able to apply many of the lessons learned from the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in their response this year to avian influenza A (H5N1), which led to 39 human cases with 28 deaths.
Disturbingly, there are now reports that the H5N1 virus, which has the potential to jump from birds to humans, has now been found in pigs in China, raising fears that they could serve as a "mixing bowl", making it easier for the virus to mutate and spread to humans.
"The virus is proving more difficult to contain completely than we had initially thought," said Dr Omi. "It is still circulating and we have to assume that further instances of the disease in humans are likely."
Many recent emerging diseases have originated in animals. WHO's mandate, however, does not cover animal health. "We can no longer take that limited view," said Dr Omi, citing the need to coordinate more closely with the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health.
"The strength of the response to threats of emerging diseases will depend on the public health systems that are already in place," said Dr Omi. "WHO's work is to strengthen those systems."
The Western Pacific Region is working closely with its colleagues in WHO's South-East Asian Region. Said Dr Omi: "Improved collaboration between our two regions will have global implications. Many of the emerging global threats to health begin in Asia-if we can nip them in the bud here, the whole world will benefit."
Along with the threats of emerging diseases, old diseases, such as tuberculosis-responsible for more deaths than any other disease in the Region-need to be dealt with, said Dr Omi.
Reducing the burden of HIV/AIDS in the Region remains one of WHO's most important objectives. Said Dr Omi: "The Organization is working closely with countries and partners to strengthen surveillance systems, expand coverage of risk reduction activities among vulnerable groups and increase access to AIDS care, including antiretroviral treatment."
In addition, Dr Omi warned that "health systems of the future are clearly going to be under great strain if they are inundated with cases of noncommunicable diseases caused by tobacco smoking and other unhealthy lifestyle practices." Tobacco use kills one in 10 people globally, accounting for approximately five million deaths each year.
Dr Omi told the Regional Committee that "the best way to fortify ourselves will be to put in place well planned and robust disease control programmes, to ensure that health is properly valued by governments and societies, and to build up health systems that provide services that people need and can afford."
The Regional Committee, which is meeting until 17 September, is reviewing WHO's work in the Region for the period July 2003 to June 2004.