Twenty-seven countries announced on the launch of an effort
to improve the ability to prevent, detect, respond to and contain outbreaks of
The Global Health Security Agenda was formed to take on such
outbreaks whether they are natural, accidental or intentional, as in the case
of a biological weapon.
new diseases may spark global outbreaks
Meeting in Washington, DC, the countries include several
that have been Ground Zero for recent outbreaks of potentially fatal contagious
illnesses such as H7N9
bird flu, which was detected in China a year ago, and Middle
East Respiratory Syndrome, which was first reported in Saudi Arabia in
We are all vulnerable
The initiative is a tacit recognition that the vast majority
of countries are poorly prepared to detect, let alone contain, disease outbreaks,
and that their failure to institute effective disease-surveillance and -control
systems poses a global threat. "In our interconnected world we are all
vulnerable" when countries lack the will or the ability to detect and
contain infectious-disease outbreaks, Laura Tollgate, senior director for
Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism and Threat Reduction at the US National
Security Council, told reporters ahead of the meeting. "Disease
threats spread faster than ever before," and "outbreaks anywhere in
the world are only a plane ride away" from everyplace else.
The Pentagon, too, is involved, already spending nearly $300
million a year to build laboratories and other health-security infrastructure
overseas. "The global threat (of disease outbreaks) requires the Department
of Defense to innovate," said Andrew Weber, assistant Secretary of Defence
for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defence Programmes.
The Global Health Security Agenda aims to prevent avoidable
epidemics by, for instance, keeping to a minimum the number of labs worldwide
that store dangerous microbes and by extending vaccination
Another goal is to detect threats early, such as by
strengthening and linking disease-monitoring systems of individual countries,
developing real-time electronic reporting systems, and promoting faster sharing
of biological samples, such as throat swabs and blood samples from people with
a new form of influenza.
Long way to go
Experts in global health security say there is a long way to
go before such goals are achieved, as evidenced by failures to meet targets set
by an earlier pact.
Under a legally-binding 2005 agreement overseen by the World
Health Organization, for instance, 194 countries vowed to improve their
capacity to prevent, detect, report and respond to public health threats of
They included novel diseases, such as new
strains of influenza and outbreaks of known threats such as Ebola.
In particular, countries are required to focus on outbreaks that may constitute
a global health emergency.
The countries had until June 2012 to meet the core
requirements, such as strengthening surveillance systems to detect emerging
diseases. 84% failed to do so, said Rebecca Katz of George Washington
University, an expert in global health security.
The reasons included lack of scientific capacity to conduct
disease surveillance, such as to detect a new bird virus spreading to people,
too few trained epidemiologists and the fact that "some things are just
plain hard, like being able to detect and contain a disease at points of entry
into a country," said Katz.
Touchier issues have also slowed efforts to improve the
early-warning network for emerging diseases, such as Indonesia in the last
decade invoking "viral sovereignty". That nation argued it was unfair
to expect it to ship flu samples to western labs that could be used by
pharmaceutical companies produce a vaccine that would then be sold at prices
that most Indonesians could not afford.
It took four years of tense negotiations before Indonesia reached
a 2009 agreement to share disease samples.
US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and
Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa
Monaco are scheduled to give opening remarks at the launch of the agenda.
In addition to continuing Pentagon spending for global
health security, President Barack Obama has asked for $45 million in additional
funding for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention next year to expand
pilot programmes, such as those in Uganda and Vietnam.
In Uganda, for instance, CDC worked with local public health
agencies to set up a system for collecting blood and other samples from
patients, racing them via motorcycle courier to the capital for testing, and
quickly sending back the results so the local clinic knew what it was dealing
with. "We have the ability to make both the United States and the world
substantially safer from infectious threats," said CDC director Dr Tom
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