GENEVA – With an estimated 2.1 billion airline passengers roaming the planet last year alone, infectious diseases are spreading faster than ever before, the U.N. health agency said Thursday.
The World Health Organization called on governments to follow its revised regulations for fighting dangerous health crises.
"New diseases are emerging at the historically unprecedented rate of one per year," WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said in an introduction to the annual World Health Report.
The thrust of WHO's efforts to protect global health has been the revision of the International Health Regulations, which came into effect in June. The voluntary regulations govern how countries should report potentially dangerous health emergencies to WHO.
While the regulations are meant to improve disease reporting worldwide, it is uncertain how much influence they actually have. For example, American officials earlier this year anxiously tracked the European whereabouts of a U.S. lawyer believed to have a highly dangerous form of tuberculosis.
International officials eventually identified the roughly 127 people thought to have been exposed to his illness during two trans-Atlantic flights. But it was only after he had left Europe that U.S. officials informed WHO and other countries of the event. At that stage, they were powerless to act. The lawyer later turned out to have a less serious form of the disease.
While the governments of WHO's 193 member states would ideally be the first source of information in any outbreak, that is often not the case. Nearly half of all of WHO's outbreak alerts come from the media and are then followed up by affected countries.
WHO's annual report also urges countries to share viruses to help develop vaccines and to tighten domestic efforts to combat disease outbreaks.
But an ongoing battle with Indonesia, the nation hardest hit by the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, has yet to be resolved. Though Indonesia has said it would send human bird flu virus samples to WHO, it has not yet fully shared the samples.
Indonesia has repeatedly demanded assurances that any pandemic vaccines developed would be affordable for developing nations. Instead of sharing viruses with WHO, Indonesia has signed agreements with vaccine makers, promising to share samples in exchange for vaccine expertise.
In 1951, when WHO issued its first set of health regulations to prevent the international spread of diseases, the situation was stable, the report said. People traveled internationally by ship, slowing the spread of diseases around the world and new diseases were rare.
But today, high volumes of people can quickly travel worldwide, meaning an outbreak or epidemic in any part of the planet is only a few hours away from becoming an imminent threat somewhere else, the report said. Over the last five years, WHO confirmed more than 1,100 disease outbreaks worldwide, such as cholera, polio and bird flu.
There are 39 new pathogens that were unknown a generation ago, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola hemorrhagic fever and SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome