Infectious Diseases Remain the World's Leading Killer

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I'm Faith Lapidus.  And I'm Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.  Today we tell about efforts in the fight against some of the major health threats in the world.

The World Health Organization says infectious diseases remain the world's leading killer.  These diseases cause one out of every four deaths. The spread of AIDS has been especially serious.  Forty million people are now infected with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.  Africa is the hardest hit continent. The disease killed more than two million people in Southern Africa alone last year.  The disease also is spreading quickly through parts of Asia and Europe.

The W.H.O. reports more than eight hundred sixty thousand people are infected with H.I.V. or AIDS in Russia.  About eighty percent of the officially reported cases are among people who inject drugs.  Most of them are under age thirty and are living in cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

A similar situation exists in Ukraine.  The number of newly reported cases of H.I.V. and AIDS there has almost doubled in each of the first three years of this century.  Experts say the five republics of Central Asia could face similar problems soon if no immediate action is taken.  The Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia currently have low numbers of AIDS victims, but infections there are increasing quickly.

Robyn Montgomery works for AIDS Foundation East-West.  This independent group is trying to stop the spread of AIDS in the former Soviet Union.  Ms. Montgomery told VOA reporter Lisa McAdams that governments have been slow to react there.  In addition, she says unjust treatment against AIDS victims has worsened the situation.

In March, AIDS Foundation East-West launched an H.I.V. and AIDS prevention project in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.  The goal is to train medical workers and others.  It is the first of its kind in Central Asia.  The group hopes the program will serve as a model for governments across the former Soviet Union.

The disease known as bird flu is also spreading through Russia and parts of the former Soviet Union.  But, the problem is worse in Southeast Asia.  A deadly form, or strain, of this influenza has killed more than sixty people in Southeast Asia over the past two years. Most of the victims were in Vietnam. In addition, about one hundred million birds around the world have either died of the virus or been killed to prevent bird flu from spreading.

The H-five, N-one strain of bird flu is deadly for chickens and some other birds, but it has rarely infected humans.  Health officials, however, fear the strain could change into a form that passes easily from person to person.  If this happens, bird flu could spread around the world and kill millions of people.

American scientists say they have successfully tested a human vaccine against the H-five, N-one bird flu virus.  But, they say it could be months before it is approved for manufacture and public use.  Until then, governments are pressing ahead with other measures.

For example, health officials in Vietnam have started to vaccinate more than two hundred million chickens and ducks against the disease.  Van Dang Ky works for the Ministry of Agriculture.  He told VOA reporter Kay Johnson that if the program is completed by November, the number of human flu patients would likely be reduced this winter.

Asia is also concerned about Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.  SARS first appeared in southern China in two thousand two.  It apparently spread to humans from animals. The disease quickly spread around the world.  In less than one year, more than eight thousand people in twenty-nine countries were infected. The disease killed almost eight hundred people, most of them in China.

Roy Wadia works for the World Health Organization in Beijing.  He told VOA reporter Benjamin Sand that SARS showed that what happens in one country can affect the whole world.  SARS threatened to become an international public health crisis.  Many people caught the disease after they sat near an infected passenger on an airplane.

SARS has largely disappeared today, although doctors do not know why.  Yet, they are using lessons learned from the outbreak to develop treatments for future emergencies.

Health officials say international cooperation is necessary to fight diseases.  When SARS first appeared, China denied reports of the outbreak, and then refused to cooperate with international health workers.  As a result, scientists say it took much longer than necessary to find the cause of the disease and to identify treatments.

China has since worked more closely with international researchers. Chinese doctors are now trying to develop a vaccine for SARS.

SARS was a new disease.  But, the Ebola and Marburg viruses have been know to modern science for many years.  In less than forty years, the diseases have killed about two thousand people, mostly in Africa.  Although this seems like a small number of victims, both viruses have the ability to kill millions.  The World Health Organization describes them as among the most deadly organisms known to infect humans.

Scientists say it is difficult to research these viruses because they often appear in areas that are hard to reach. Doctor Robert Swanepoel works with South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases.  He spoke to VOA reporter Delia Robertson.  Doctor Swanepoel says carrying out research during an outbreak of disease is hard because the people in affected areas are frightened.  He says that until a vaccine or cure is developed, the best hope of preventing the spread of Ebola or Marburg is early discovery and containment.

The World Health Organization is one of several groups that supervise the world's infectious disease situation.  The W.H.O. depends on a Canadian-based early warning system called the Global Health Intelligence Network.  Network officials collect and share media reports of possible disease outbreaks, including possible biological weapons attacks by terrorists. The network operates in seven languages, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

The United States government also operates laboratories in this country and in several other nations.  Joseph Malone heads the Defense Department's Global Emerging Infections System.  He told VOA reporter Amy Katz that the system plays a supportive role when outbreaks happen in the United States and around the world.

Both the Global Health Intelligence Network and the Global Emerging Infections System respond to natural public health threats.  But some officials believe a poisonous chemical or biological agent could cause a more frightening health crisis. They believe it would not be difficult for terrorists to release a deadly chemical, virus or bacteria into the food supply or the air.

William Raub supervises America's public health emergency preparedness for the Centers for Disease Control.  He says the government considers the anthrax organism and the smallpox virus the two leading biological weapons that terrorists could use in an attack. So the government is developing new vaccines against the diseases.

The disease smallpox was ended in the nineteen seventies.  Only small amounts of the virus remain under high security in the United States and Russia.

Doctor Anthony Fauchi heads infectious disease research at the National Institutes of Health.  He told VOA reporter David McAlary that money spent preparing for a biological attack is not money wasted.  But, he warned that no country can ever be completely ready for such an attack.  Doctor Fauchi said there is a need for drug companies to develop vaccines against a disease outbreak or a bio-terrorist attack that may never be used.  Last year, the Bush administration approved a five thousand million dollar program that provides drug companies with economic reasons to manufacture such vaccines.

Still, the rate of progress remains troubling for some medical experts.  They fear there might be a major health crisis in the future for which no treatment exists.

This program was written by Jill Moss.  It was produced by Mario Ritter.  I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus.  Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.