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WHO takes key steps to combat emerging diseases

Fifty-sixth session of the WHO Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, 19 to 23 September

Noumea, New Caledonia—The World Health Organization's Regional Committee for the Western Pacific today endorsed the Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases, which is designed to reduce the risk of infectious diseases that could have global consequences for public health and even economic growth.

The Asia Pacific region has become the epicentre of such epidemics, prompting the WHO Regional Offices in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific, in collaboration with Member States, to develop a strategy to provide a regional tactical approach and build new partnerships against emerging diseases.

The past few decades have seen emerging infectious diseases arrive with greater frequency and with more virulence. Unlike other outbreaks, such as cholera and tuberculosis, the pattern has changed, with animals now being the principal source of infection.

The most recent outbreaks—severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and avian influenza A(H5N1)—have also heightened awareness about the economic impact of emerging diseases. SARS slowed economic growth in some affected countries, while bird flu has hurt the poultry industry in parts of South-East Asia.

The Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases is a road map for countries in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific Regions to strengthen core capacities required for effective preparedness planning, prevention, surveillance, containment and control of emerging infectious diseases.

Addressing the Regional Committee in Noumea, New Caledonia, Dr Shigeru Omi, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, said a well developed plan of action is needed to effectively respond to these diseases. He also stressed the need for resource mobilization and donor coordination.

"Infectious diseases do not respect international borders," said Dr Omi. "Global partnerships and the rapid sharing of information enhance preparedness and evidence-based control strategies."

The outbreaks of SARS and avian influenza have made clear the need to revise the International Health Regulations, a legal framework for detecting, notifying and responding to public health emergencies of international concern, including those caused by emerging diseases.

Over 30 new infectious agents have been detected in the last three decades, 75% of which have originated in animals. New pathogens, particularly viruses, remain unpredictable and continue to emerge and spread around the globe. Several have profoundly affected countries and areas in the Asia Pacific Region, home to over 3.4 billion people—or 53% of the world's population.

"Emerging infectious diseases are real and they pose a threat to societies and their economies," said Dr Omi. "But with strong political support, a commitment to the global good and effective public health systems, the challenge can be met."                                        

Fact Sheet


  • First severe infectious disease to emerge in the 21st century
  • Successfully contained in July 2003, although several laboratory accidents occurred in the region between August 2003 and April 2004
  • Given the potential serious public health impact, SARS is now considered a "listed disease", meaning that even a single case of SARS should be reported to WHO under the revised International Health Regulations.

Avian influenza A(H5N1)

  • Since December 2003, nine countries in Asia have been affected, and the virus continues to plague the Western Pacific Region.
  • As of July 2005, a cumulative total of 112 human cases, including 57 deaths, have been reported in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Viet Nam.
  • Most human cases were linked to exposure to dead pig or poultry, evidence at this stage suggests there is no efficient human-to-human transmission. However, there have been human cases reported within family clusters in which human-to-human transmission could not be ruled out.
  • The epidemiological patterns of the most recently detected human cases appears to be changing, raising concerns about the potential of a new influenza pandemic.

For more information, please contact Dr Hitoshi Oshitani, WHO Regional Adviser in Communicable Disease Surveillance and Response, email: ; Mr Peter Cordingley, Public Information Officer/spokesman, at (68 7) 951 635 or email ; or Ms Marilu Lingad (68 7) 951 636 or email .

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