WHO Regional Director highlights the rise in new emerging diseases

News release

NOUMEA, New Caledonia—Dr Shigeru Omi, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, today called for an all-out war on avian influenza and warned of the threat of new emerging diseases.

"While we still have a window of opportunity, we must do everything we can to avert an influenza pandemic as we simultaneously prepare for a worse-case scenario," Dr Omi said in his address to the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, WHO's governing body in the Region. More than 100 representatives, including a number of health ministers, are meeting here until Friday to review WHO's work in the Western Pacific Region and to discuss future health directions.

"Avian influenza and the earlier outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) are not the only emerging diseases we can expect to confront in this new century," Dr Omi warned as he urged Member States to brace themselves to deal with new threats to public health. This is the third consecutive year that the Western Pacific Region has battled a disease that has emerged from the animal world, a troubling pattern.

The avian influenza A(H5N1) virus, first detected in the Republic of Korea in December 2003, has now affected 11 countries, including Kazakhstan and Russia. Some of the countries affected do not have the resources to fully address the problems of prevention, surveillance, detection and outbreak control, Dr Omi said.

Also disturbing is the number of human cases—a total of 112 infections and 57 deaths from avian influenza—since the outbreak began, although Dr Omi noted that the virus has not developed the ability to spread effectively from human to human. The virus, meanwhile, remains resilient, unpredictable, unstable and extremely versatile.

To avert a pandemic, Dr Omi said affected countries need to:

  • build their capacity to detect the avian influenza virus in animals and humans, including strengthening laboratory capacity to promptly and accurately examine specimens from suspected cases;
  • take rapid action to prevent the spread of the disease, such as slaughtering infected poultry and restricting the movement of commercial poultry, as well as immunization of poultry in selected areas; and
  • improve animal husbandry practices to minimize the spread of infection from one species to another.

Dr Omi also urged countries to prepare for a pandemic. He said they should:

  • stockpile antivirals and strategically position them in high-risk areas;
  • intensify efforts in vaccine development; and
  • prepare for the massive social and economic disruptions that would accompany a pandemic.

Meanwhile, WHO has developed an Asian Pacific Avian Influenza Action Plan that will require approximately $160 million to implement. A donors meeting will be held later this year to mobilize funds.

In addition, WHO's Regional Office for the Western Pacific, in collaboration with the Regional Office for South-East Asia, has developed a biregional strategy for strengthening capacity for communicable disease surveillance and response. The strategy is a road map for strengthening preparedness, prevention, surveillance and response throughout Asia and the Pacific for all communicable diseases.

The International Health Regulations have also been revised, setting out new requirements and obligations for Member States and WHO concerning the verification, assessment and notification of public health events of international concern.

While tackling the issue of emerging diseases, Dr Omi's report to the Regional Committee included other health concerns in the Western Pacific Region. They included:

  • TB-HIV co-infection threatens to reverse the steady progress towards achieving the goal to reduce TB prevalence and mortality by a half by 2010, from 1999 levels. People with HIV are 10 times more likely to develop TB than those without HIV.

Polio

  • The recent polio outbreak in Indonesia—more than 200 cases—brought the disease back to the doorstep of the Western Pacific Region.
  • Since 2004, 18 previously polio-free countries worldwide have seen the importation of wild poliovirus from a polio-endemic country threaten their polio-free status.

Measles and Hepatitis B

  • Measles continues to be one of the leading causes of vaccine-preventable morbidity and mortality in children in the Region, despite a 95% reduction in deaths compared to the pre-vaccine era.
  • Measles elimination and the reduction of hepatitus B seroprevalence to less than 2% are twin regional interim goals for 2012.

HIV/AIDS

  • An estimated 1.5 million people in the Region were living with HIV/AIDS in 2004 and some 120 000 people are expected to die from AIDS this year.
  • The Region is still working toward the goals laid out in the 3 x 5 Initiative—3 million people worldwide with AIDS receiving antiretrovirals by the end of 2005—and efforts to meet this target have led to a marked increase in the number of people receiving antiretroviral therapy.
  • With prevention as the major focus, WHO continues to promote the use of condoms and supports harm-reduction programmes for injecting drug users, including needle exchanges and substitution treatment such as methadone.

Tobacco control

  • A total of 18 of 27 Member States in the Western Pacific Region have ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), with only eight more needed to reach 100% ratification. China recently announced its intention to ratify the Convention.
  • The WHO FCTC is binding international law aimed at reducing tobacco consumption. It provides the basic tools for countries and areas to enact comprehensive tobacco-control legislation, including a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

Environmental health

  • WHO is helping to draw up strategies and action on indoor and outdoor air quality, and toxic industrial and household chemicals and waste, as well as on global changes in climate and ecosystems.

Noncommunicable diseases -

  • Diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart diseases and other problems, once thought to affect mostly developed countries, are now realities of life in Asia and the Pacific.
  • There are encouraging efforts to combat these diseases.

Child health

  • A majority of the 3000 children under the age of five who die every day from common neonatal conditions, pneumonia and diarrhoea could have been saved with readily available, cost-effective interventions.
  • The new Regional Child Survival Strategy, developed by WHO and the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), seeks to serve as a guide to halt these unnecessary deaths.

Health care financing

  • Efforts are focused on strengthening the regional capacity to support countries and areas to develop and implement policies that bring about equitable access to the most-needed health services.
  • A draft regional strategy for health care financing has been developed for the Regional Committee's consideration.

Emergencies and disasters

  • The tsunami that hit Asia on 26 December 2004 drove home the need to do more in the area of disaster and emergency planning and preparedness.

Earlier, Dr Lee Jong-Wook, WHO Director-General, addressed the Regional Committee, urging Member States not to underestimate the threat the world now faces from emerging diseases such as pandemic influenza. “Your experience, so painfully gained from SARS control, has been well used to plan the strategic control measures that WHO is now urging each country to take,” Dr Lee told delegates.

Request to interview WHO experts on any of the above health issues may be made to Ms Marilu Lingad at (68 7) 951636; email: lingadm@wpro.who.int or Mr Peter Cordingley, WHO public information officer/spokesman at (68 7) 951635; email: cordingleyp@wpro.who.int.

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