- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

GENEVA — The rapid global spread of the atypical pneumonia virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, as well as its economic effect on travel and tourism, have prompted governments to rethink the role of health in national and international security.

“Effective surveillance and rapid response saves lives, protects economies and is an essential pillar of both national and international security,” Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, departing chief of the World Health Organization, told ministers from 192 countries attending the annual World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva last week.

SARS has infected more than 8,000 people since it appeared six months ago and has killed more than 700. China is the most affected, followed by Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Toronto.

There is no known cure or vaccine against the SARS virus.

Dr. Brundtland, whose term expires July 21, said: “SARS has been a wake-up call and is the first new epidemic of the 21st century.” Its ramifications, she said, will be far reaching.

“Globalization of disease and threats to health mean globalization of the fight against them,” she said.

Dr. Jong-Wook Lee, who will succeed Dr. Brundtland in July, is the first person from South Korea to have been chosen to lead an agency of the United Nations. He was elected director general at a meeting Wednesday of the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s governing body.

Dr. Lee, who earned his medical degree at Seoul National University and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Hawaii, has worked 19 years at the WHO in technical, managerial and policy positions, notably directing campaigns against tuberculosis and vaccine-preventable diseases of children. He speaks Korean, Japanese and English, and reads French and Chinese.

He told the assembly that as director general of the WHO, he will expand and strengthen the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network.

“SARS is the first new disease threat of the 21st century, but it will not be the last,” Dr. Lee, 58, said in his acceptance speech. He went to China recently to review the problem posed by SARS and how it was being handled.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said that “the No. 1 thing is how we are going to deal with this infectious disease called SARS, and how we are going to be able to develop closer cooperation when things like this happen, because we are going to have new diseases in the future.”

With fast travel over long distances by infected people who appear free of symptoms, germs can spread quickly from one continent to another, and “it’s imperative that we do something about this,” Mr. Thompson said.

“Health is ultimately a security issue,” said Dr. Michael J. Ryan, coordinator of the global alert and response network. “SARS is truly a global phenomenon,” he said.

Harvey Bale, secretary general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations, told The Washington Times that in the case of SARS, the economic effect is much greater and more destabilizing in countries that have extensive public-health infrastructures.

“The communicability [of SARS] is easier then AIDS, and the potential damage can be fast and furious,” said Mr. Bale, an economist. He said he thinks a SARS vaccine may be several years away.

Daniel Spiegel, a former U.S. ambassador to U.N. agencies in Geneva, including the WHO, told The Times: “WHO needs to come to grips how to avert another outbreak of communicable disease. …

“The WHO is respected for its professionalism,” Mr. Spiegel said, but added: “The economic impact and adverse trade effects are enormous, and we all need to do more to redouble efforts to beef up defenses against outbreaks of disease.”

“More money needs to be spent in public-health infrastructure in developing countries,” he said.

China, which was criticized for its secrecy about the outbreak and for not being forthcoming with the WHO about it, tried to mend fences during the meeting.

Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi, who also is the minister of health, told the delegates assembled that “China has paid a high price,” and that the situation “remains serious.” The former oil executive and trade expert promised her country would not lower its guard against SARS.

“There were defects in our public health system; there were no unified chains of command and control, and no uninterrupted flow of information,” Miss Wu conceded.

Miss Wu and Mr. Thompson agreed on the sidelines of the assembly to expand U.S.-China cooperation on SARS.

Joint efforts will include the exchange of virus samples and of experts. Training for Chinese health specialists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta also has been planned, Chinese and U.S. officials said.

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