Health Threats for The 21st Century

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. 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.

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.

Symptoms include high temperature, diarrhea, and several bleeding.

Malaria, which is responsible for a million deaths every year worldwide, is emerging in new areas or coming back in places where it was thought to be eradicated. Experts believe the parasite that covers the disease is becoming more resistant to some of the most common treatments.

Cholera is also making a comeback, according to the WHO. Poor sanitation and unclean drinking water are the main causes for outbreaks. War, conflict and natural disasters in troubled areas such as the Rwanda crisis of 1994 are often responsible for the emergence of cholera.

Tuberculosis accounts for about 1.5 million deaths worldwide this year. While antibiotic therapies are often effective treatments, many people do not have access to them. Another concern is the increasing resistance of bacterium which causes TB to antibiotics.

Sources: WHO, Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, BBC (Cynthia Ross Cravit)




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