Alarmed by evidence that diseases once thought virtually wiped out are staging a comeback, public health officials from the United States and Europe have agreed to establish a global early warning network to alert doctors and governments about budding epidemics.
The network - established by a U.S.-European Union task force on communicable diseases - will start by registering outbreaks of “food-borne” diseases like hepatitis and the E-coli bacterium, hich can turn hamburgers into deadly poison. Officials said Tuesday that if the plan works, it will be extended to cover all communicable diseases.
Relatively small outbreaks of disease often grow into global epidemics because local governments try to cover them up, and doctors in the rest of the world fail to recognize the microbes as they are spread by jetliners and other kinds of modern transportation, said Nancy CarterFoster, director of the State Department’s emerging infectious diseases program, and Georgios Gouvras, head of the EU’s public health policy unit.
“These diseases know no borders,” Carter-Foster said. “For diseases, it is truly a one-world village.”
Under current procedures, the World Health Organization requires governments to report outbreaks of just three diseases - cholera, plague and yellow fever. A deadly disease like ebola is not covered. And diseases on the list sometimes fall through the cracks, like when India recently tried to cover up cases of plague.
“I’m not sure that the WHO or any other organization has the resources to do the job,” Gouvras said.
Under the new plan, U.S. and European governments would report outbreaks on their territory, as well as those that happen elsewhere that come to their attention. Other governments would be encouraged to participate, in part by promises of aid to battle epidemics.
As a first step, the network will establish an extensive list of diseases defined not by name but by a list of clinical symptoms. The object, officials said, is to make sure that nothing is overlooked because physicians do not recognize it as a serious disease.
Carter-Foster said the idea was to make sure that “we don’t get caught where there is no (agreed) protocol for ebola, so ebola goes unreported.”
Carter-Foster and Gouvras said a related problem is that physicians in the United States, Europe and other developed countries often don’t recognize exotic tropical diseases because they see so few.