Nations Focus on Health Risks Posed by Globalization

World Health Organization spearheads effort to thwart spread of infectious disease, other threats

FRIDAY, April 6, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Globalization may be good for many of the world's economies, but it also poses health challenges to the people who live in those countries.

That's the message of a new report issued by the World Health Organization, released to coincide with World Health Day, which is celebrated every April 7, the anniversary of WHO's founding in 1948.

"There are a growing number of health problems linked to the increasing number of people and goods crossing the borders every day, because disease crosses the borders in people and goods," said Iain Simpson, a spokesman for WHO, speaking Tuesday from Singapore where he attended a conference in connection with World Health Day.

"Countries need international health security to protect themselves," he added.

An international health security report just released by WHO lists the following priorities for the agency in the coming year:

  • the threat posed by emerging infectious diseases, such as influenza and SARS;
  • the easier spread of disease around the globe due to the movement of people and tainted goods as part of the global economy;
  • the need to better manage international health disasters, such as tsunamis and earthquakes;
  • awareness of biological and chemical terror threats;
  • the effects of global warming;
  • AIDS.

"This is not intended to be a prioritized list but a compilation of issues of equal importance -- issues that are fundamental in international health security," Simpson said.

Simpson said there has been a growing risk of disease spread during the last decade as global trade has mushroomed. Along with greater access to commercial goods has come the potential to transport tainted food products, illegal black market goods, as well as disease carried by people as they travel.

"But the two events that spurred this year's topic are the SARS epidemic in 2003 and the increasing possibility of an international (flu) pandemic," he said.

The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic started in the fall of 2002 in China, killing nearly 800 people worldwide, most of them in Asia, before subsiding the following summer. While its spread was prevented, it served as a wake-up call about the emerging threat of such infectious diseases, Simpson said.

These global concerns are very different from the international issues that motivated the founders of the United Nations to establish WHO after World War II, Simpson said.

"When WHO was created, like all the other United Nations agencies, people were very concerned about securing world peace and, as part of that, improving the health of people around the world," he said. "That a person could be in Singapore at 11 o'clock in the evening and then be in London the next day was an impossibility in 1948."

As part of its new focus on cooperation between countries when it comes to health threats, WHO has revised its international regulations so nations can identify health problems as early as possible and seek the help they need from governments, other countries and the private sector. The regulations will become effective June 15, Simpson said.

"These regulations aren't about assigning blame but are in place to help any country that faces a disease. It is very important to have international support," Simpson said.

Scott Dowell is head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's global disease detection protection program. He said the new regulations will update what was a relatively informal system of reporting potentially serious outbreaks. They will also obligate countries to recognize their vulnerability to disease and respond quickly when threatened.

He pointed to West Nile Virus, which was thought of as "one of those exotic diseases" (it's commonly found in Africa, West Asia and the Middle East) that wouldn't affect the United States -- until it was first reported in the New York City area in 1999.

"But it is a real public health issue," he said, noting it has since spread to all of the 48 contiguous states.

There has been a lot of progress in the United States about addressing international health threats, Dowell said, with money coming from Congress and increasing focus on the importance of preparation.

"I'm definitely upbeat about international health security, but I wouldn't underestimate the challenges," he said. "The real test will come if there's a pandemic."

More information

To learn more, visit the World Health Organization.

SOURCES: Iain Simpson, spokesman, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland; Scott Dowell, M.D., M.P.H., chief, Global Disease Protection Program, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; World Health Day 2007, International Health Security Issues Paper, WHO
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