The annual assembly of the World Health Organization convened on Monday amid warnings from top health officials that deadly pandemics such as the SARS crisis were on the rise and could spread rapidly in the coming years.
SARS is just one of the contagious diseases threatening world health
SARS was on everyone’s mind at the start of the yearly meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva on Monday.
Even prior to entering the conference hall participants were asked to account for their contacts with suspected SARS patients. Everyone attending the meeting – including high-ranking ministers, health experts, WHO staff members and journalists – were forced to sign a written form stating that they had not had contact with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome patients or visited a hospital treating the deadly disease within the preceding 10 days. In cases of doubt, visitors were asked to take their temperature.
Controlling the spread of disease
Worldwide more than 8,000 people have contracted the pneumonia-like disease including 600 deaths, most of which have been reported in China and Hong Kong. WHO officials say SARS is one of the worst examples of rapidly spreading contagious diseases in recent history. Aggravated by a mobile society and international travel, SARS quickly spread from its initial outbreak area in mainland China and began infecting people throughout Asia and in North America and recently in Europe.
But the virus may be running its course. For the first time since the disease emerged a few months ago, the number of new cases seems to be declining. WHO officials at the yearly conference confirmed that even China is now showing its lowest rate of fresh SARS patients since coming clean with the extent of the outbreak a few weeks ago.
And yet there is still reason to be concerned, health experts warn. David Heymann, leading expert for SARS and head of WHO’s communicable disease unit, told reporters that the virus still poses a danger. "There is no way that this is no longer a danger... As long as this disease is spreading in the world, and as long as airplanes are flying from continent to continent this disease is a risk to us all. And we can not rest until we have it put in a box – if we can do that."
More deadly diseases
At the start of the nine-day conference, experts for communicable disease cautioned health officials not to focus solely on SARS and overlook other equally as deadly pandemics looming on the horizon.
"SARS has been a wake-up call," WHO Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland told delegates during the opening session. But, she warned, "The battle is not yet won. We must be vigilant."
Speaking at the WHO assembly, Heymann warned international health officials to be on the look out for outbreaks of contagious viruses such as influenza. "There will be more outbreaks like SARS. There will be more outbreaks to spread internationally. Influenza will almost certainly occur in a global pandemic form as it did three times in the last century. And many other diseases which we don’t even know... may come and be with us from now on forward."
For this reason WHO officials have said they will focus efforts on bolstering international awareness of communicable diseases and increasing cooperation among nations whenever new diseases emerge.
The director general praised international scientific cooperation in fighting SARS, saying it had been "exemplary and inspiring." And if nothing more, the SARS crisis has shown one important thing: In order to successfully combat a sudden outbreak of disease, the international community must work closely together and share information about the epidemic. Had this been the case in the early stages of SARS’ outbreak, the disease would not have spread to 30 countries, Brundtland said.
"Globalization of disease and threats to health mean globalization of the fight against them."