WHO official tells world to prepare for new diseases

22-05-2006 | |

In the wake of SARS and in the midst of the current bird flu crisis, countries should be ready for new and possibly more deadly diseases in the future, according to a senior official of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“As we have already seen with avian influenza, the threat from emerging diseases did not end with SARS,” said Dr Shigeru Omi, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific.

Dr Omi said that one of the lessons from SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), was that governments must provide adequately resourced health systems to protect the public. “Many health systems were undermanned and under-resourced when SARS struck,” Dr Omi said. “The result was great human suffering, enormous fear and staggering economic losses.”

Another lesson from SARS was that transparency always is the best policy. “Because the outside world was not informed of what was going on in the initial stages of the outbreak, the virus managed to reach a tourist hotel in Hong Kong (China).  From that moment on, international outbreak was inevitable.  If we had known more about what was happening in those early weeks, things would probably have been different.”

SARS also served as a wake-up call on the need to change animal husbandry practices in Asia, Dr Omi said. He said the SARS jump from animals to humans was clearly related to the conditions in some wet markets where wild animals are jammed together and slaughtered.

Dr Omi said that the avian influenza problem was being aggravated by conditions in backyard farms, where different animals are raised together, often in unhygienic conditions, and close to human habitations.