Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Pandora's Petri Dish

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Pandora's Petri Dish

Article excerpt

Only a unified international effort will allow us to confront diseases that ignore political boundaries and jump from one continent to another in a matter of hours.

The Pan American Health Organization was founded in 1902 by the second International Conference of American States to help the countries in North, Central, and South America combat disease, extend life, and improve the living standards of the people of the Western Hemisphere. The Pan American Health Organization has also served as a regional office for the World Health Organization since its founding 50 years ago.

Collaboration among nations has been the key to some of our most notable successes in battling infectious diseases. Smallpox was eradicated from the world in 1977, for instance, and polio was eliminated from the Americas in 1991. We are now poised to eliminate measles from this hemisphere as well.

We've targeted half a dozen other diseases for eradication, and vaccines now protect about eight out of 10 of the world's children against six potentially deadly diseases, including measles, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, and tuberculosis. Despite these successes, we have not conquered infectious diseases to the extent we anticipated 20 to 30 years ago. A number of factors have converged to make this task more difficult. Among them are international travel; the movement across borders of goods, food products, and diseases, which effectively ignore borders; and the emergence of new diseases and drug-resistant forms of old ones - including tuberculosis and malaria - that were once under control.

Grim Statistics

Infectious diseases are the world's leading cause of premature death. Nearly 50,000 children and adults die every day from infectious diseases worldwide. Of about 52 million deaths from all causes in 1995 - including the deaths of about 9 million young children - nearly a third were due to infectious diseases. Half the world's population of 5.8 billion is threatened by endemic diseases, and millions of people are developing cancers as a direct result of preventable viral and bacterial infections. Many of these diseases could be averted or cured for as little as a dollar per person.

Today, communicable diseases continue to be the major source of illness and death in developing countries, and these diseases often hamper the socioeconomic development of these nations. Indeed, some developing countries are paying a huge price in lost foreign currency and income from food trade and tourism as a result of epidemics of cholera, plague, and other diseases. But industrialized nations are also becoming increasingly vulnerable to many new and reemerging infectious agents.

Each year, acute respiratory infections such as pneumonia kill 4.5 million people, about 4 million of them children. Diarrheal diseases - including cholera, typhoid, and dysentery, spread chiefly by contaminated water or food - -kill more than 3 million, most of them children. Tuberculosis kills more than 3 million annually, mostly adults. Malaria kills more than 2 million people, including 1 million children. Hepatitis B infections kill more than 1 million people. AIDS kills more than 1 million each year. Measles kills more than 1 million children annually. Neonatal tetanus kills almost half a million infants, and whooping cough - or pertussis - kills 355,000 children yearly. Even intestinal worm infections kill at least 135,000 people annually.

New Threats

In the last two decades we have also discovered more than 30 new infectious agents that threaten human health. We identified rotavirus, a major cause of infantile diarrhea worldwide, in 1973. Cryptosporidium parvum - a parasite that produces both acute and chronic diarrhea and which infected over 400,000 people in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1993 - was identified in 1976. Legionella pneumophila, the bacterium that causes Legionnaires' disease, was identified in 1977. …

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