Guest column| Marc Yacht

A variety of threats to our health lurk nearby

The World Health Organization was founded April 7, 1948, and that date established World Health Day.

The goals this year:

• Raise awareness and public understanding of the global and locally relevant health consequences of climate change.

• Advocate for interdisciplinary and intersectoral partnerships from the local to the international level that seek to improve health through rapid deployment of proactive adaptation programs to minimize health impacts.

• Generate effective actions by local communities, organizations, health systems and governments to reduce the impact of climate change on health through urgent application of mitigation and adaptation techniques.

• Demonstrate the health community's role in facing the challenges globally and in regions, countries and communities.

• Spark commitment and action among governments, international organizations, donors, civil society, business and communities (especially among young people) to anchor health at the heart of the climate change agenda.

"Climate change" specifically appears in three of the five goals, placing the gauntlet square at the feet of governments to cooperate with a vision for improved global health. It is not surprising that the theme of World Health Day is "protecting health from climate change."

The World Health Organization made its biggest mark fighting infectious disease in the trenches. The organization has sponsored teams of physicians and scientists to address outbreaks of alarming new infectious diseases like Ebola or continued in efforts to eradicate older diseases such as tuberculosis. Its first stunning success involved the worldwide eradication of smallpox in 1980, culminating 20 years of international cooperation to end this dreaded disease.

As recently as November 2007, an Ebola outbreak occurred in the western district of Uganda. There were 149 cases and 37 fatalities. The World Health Organization's Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network coordinated a number of organizations which included Doctors without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontiers), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and the World Food Program.

Isolating and containing deadly Ebola hemorrhagic fever outbreaks has been a great public health success story. The World Health Organization remains the center of response to global health challenges. Through international partnerships with the United States, UNICEF, the governments of Australia and Japan, along with the commitment of Rotary International, the polio eradication initiative in the Western Pacific Region was a success.

The World Health Organization's global slate is a large one with implications worldwide and reaching into every community. The ease of travel from one country to another requires adequate surveillance and response if populations are to be protected from the spread of communicable disease. It is estimated that 2.1-billion airline passengers traveled in 2006. An outbreak in one part of the world is only hours away from becoming a threat somewhere else.

New infectious diseases are occurring at an alarming rate, more than one per year. There are more than 40 diseases today that were unknown a generation ago. Some 1,100 epidemic events have been verified by the World Health Organization in the past five years. Add to this the growing resistance to antibiotic therapy by known pathogens.

Infectious diseases are not the only public health threat. There are concerns about increasing food-borne illness, as exemplified by Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (mad cow), or lethal strains of E. coli. There are accidental or deliberate outbreaks such as the anthrax-related death that occurred in Palm Beach County in 2001.

Added concerns address toxic chemical accidents, radio-nuclear events and environmental disasters. In 2006, the dumping of petrochemical waste forced 90,000 people to seek medical help and resulted in eight deaths.

Avian flu, SARS and West Nile virus continue to challenge our global public health system. Should a major outbreak occur in the United States of any of the many new and resistant lethal organisms, our ability to manage and treat the public will be crucial to the thwarting of disease. That is also true in a potential chemical contamination, nuclear accident or environmental disaster. Our fragmented system of health care may be ill-prepared to deal with such events with so many uninsured. The numbers of uninsured continue to climb and add a terrible burden to our communities and to those responsible for providing health care.

While the focus is on the effects of climate change, there are so many health threats around the world and many potential epidemics are but a plane or boat ride away.

Dr. Marc Yacht of Hudson is retired director of the Pasco County Health Department.

A variety of threats to our health lurk nearby 04/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 7:38am]

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