Health threats for the 21st century

The World Health Organization reports on the major threats to our health.

Killer diseases are emerging at an unprecedented rate, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And because the modern world is an increasingly interconnected one – with airlines carrying more than two billion passengers a year – viruses are able to cross borders and sweep across continents rapidly.

According to the WHO’s A safer future: global public health security in the 21st century, at least 39 new pathogens have been identified since 1967, including HIV, Ebola haemorrhagic fever, Marburg fever and SARS, which emerged in China and spread through Asia, Europe and North America, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing over 800 before it was brought under control.

Other new health threats include those linked to potential terrorist attacks, chemical incidents and radio-nuclear accidents, the report said.

Add to these the new risks from centuries-old threats, such as pandemic influenza, malaria and tuberculosis, which continue to pose a health risk because of mutation, rising resistance to antimicrobial medicines and weak health systems.

“Given today’s universal vulnerability to these threats, better security calls for global solidarity,” Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO, said in a news release. “International public health security is both a collective aspiration and a mutual responsibility. The new watchwords are diplomacy, cooperation, transparency and preparedness.”

But what exactly are the major threats to our health? In its report, the WHO highlights these dangers.

Pandemic influenza is the most feared health threat in our times, according to the WHO. Experts worry that the current avian flu virus – the H5N1 virus in birds – could mutate to a form that is easily transmitted from person to person. To date, the virus has infected 321 people and killed194.

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920 spread easily between humans – and it is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people. For more on pandemic flu, click here.

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is said to be the first new pathogen of the 21st century. It has been traced back to China when a man living in Foshan became ill in November 2002. Several months later, in March 2003, the syndrome appeared in Hong Kong and then spread rapidly to Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Germany, Ireland, the United States and Canada.

Although the syndrome was contained, the threat may not be over yet. In April 2005 SARS reemerged in China, which experts say demonstrates that the syndrome did not simply disappear and may emerge again on a global scale.

Viral hemorrhagic fevers are caused by several distinct families of viruses, including the virulent Ebola and Marburg. Although some types cause relatively mild illnesses, many of these viruses can cause severe, life-threatening disease. Severe illness is characterized by vascular damage and multi-organ failure.

The Ebola and Marburg viruses have some of the highest fatality rates of all, and in some cases, can kill within a few days. Hemorrhagic fevers, which are highly contagious, flourish in tropical Africa. An outbreak in Angola caused the deaths of 200 people, with nine of ten of people diagnosed dying from the illness.