Infectious diseases are emerging faster than at any time in history, the WHO warned in a report yesterday that urged closer global cooperation to tackle the growing health threats of the 21st century.
The WHO underlined that the threats knew no boundaries and included not only epidemics, but also foodborne diseases, chemical, biological or nuclear accidents or attacks, industrial pollution and the impact of climate change "that may put millions of people at risk in several countries."
"The report emphasizes that the international response required today is not only to the known, but also to the unknown," the WHO said in The World Health Report 2007: A Safer Future.
Open sharing of medical know-how, technology and supplies between rich and poor countries is also crucial and "one of the most feasible routes to global health security," it said.
Since the 1970s new diseases have been identified at the "unprecedented" rate of one or more per year, the report said.
Other centuries-old threats such as influenza, malaria and tuberculosis were also thriving because of a mix of biological mutations, rising resistance to antibiotics and weak health systems.
"Given today's universal vulnerability to these threats, better security calls for global solidarity," WHO Director-General Margaret Chan (
The report is largely based on the notion that a given health threat is no longer easily confined within a country and can spread around the world swiftly, partly due to the expansion in passenger air travel over the past half century and to trade.
The report warned of "serious gaps, particularly in health services in many countries," caused by poverty or a lack of investment that severely weakens the global safety net.
Health and medical care are not only essential to help prevent or treat illness, they are also vital in the timely detection of outbreaks, new diseases, as well as bioweapon attacks, environmental health problems, the report said.
"It would be extremely naive and complacent to assume that there will not be another disease like AIDS, another Ebola, another SARS, sooner or later," it said.
The three historical advances that helped stifle diseases such as bubonic plague, cholera and smallpox -- quarantines, better sanitation and immunization -- came about separately but became successes once they were applied internationally, the report argued.
The WHO introduced new International Health Regulations this year that are meant to sharpen the response of its 193 members to major health threats within their own borders or abroad.
It is also trying to resolve with Indonesian complaints about the availability of newly developed medicines in poor countries, which halted crucial bird flu virus sharing with foreign laboratories.
The sharing of tissue samples from human victims is needed to detect possible mutations in the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus -- one of the biggest fears of the beginning of this century -- that might lead to a flu pandemic.