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Threat From Infectious Diseases Growing

Report points to globalization, drug resistance and climate change as culprits

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 29 (HealthDay News) -- At least 170,000 Americans die each year from infectious diseases, and that number could increase dramatically during a major disease outbreak.

That dire news was delivered in a report, Germs Go Global: Why Emerging Infectious Diseases Are a Threat to America, released Wednesday by the Trust for America's Health (TFAH).

Globalization, increased drug resistance, and climate change are among the factors contributing to the growing threat from infectious diseases, according to the report, which listed some major disease threats currently facing the United States, including:

  • Emerging diseases such as a potential bird flu outbreak or another new disease such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
  • Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. More than 90,000 Americans have been infected by MRSA.
  • Hepatitis C. About 3.2 million Americans have hepatitis C infections, which account for about $15 billion a year in health-care costs.
  • HIV/AIDS, which affects about 1.2 million Americans. Last year, U.S. spending on HIV/AIDS-related medical care, research, prevention and other activities was $23.3 billion.
  • Re-emerging diseases, such as measles, mumps and tuberculosis, which were thought to be nearly eliminated in the United States.

"Infectious diseases are not just a crisis for the developing world. They are a real threat right here, right now to America," Jeffrey Levi, executive director of TFAH, said in a news release issued by the organization.

"Infectious diseases can come without warning, crossing borders, often before people even know they are sick. Americans are more vulnerable than we think we are, and our public health defenses are not as strong as they should be," Levi said.

The United States' defenses against emerging infectious diseases are inadequate, with shortcomings in surveillance, vaccines, testing and treatment, the report said. These deficiencies could lead to serious consequences for the nation's health system, economy and national security.

"The optimal preparedness for emerging, re-emerging and deliberately introduced infectious diseases requires a professionally trained and adequately funded public health infrastructure," Dr. Kathleen F. Gensheimer, state epidemiologist, division of infectious disease with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said in the news release.

"Epidemics, pandemics and other public health emergencies require a solid public health laboratory diagnostic and epidemiological surveillance system to detect aberrance in disease trends, allowing rapid response and targeted preventive actions to be instituted in a timely fashion," she said.

The trust urged improvement of the nation's capabilities to fight emerging infectious diseases through a well-funded federal effort -- coordinated with international initiatives -- designed to encourage public-private advances in research, next-generation diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.

Among a series of recommendations, the report said the U.S. government should:

  • Partner with state and local governments to provide the necessary resources to build and sustain the nation's public health capacity to respond to naturally occurring diseases and bioterrorism.
  • Further its leadership role to improve the global capacity to respond, control and eliminate infectious disease threats.
  • Enhance and promote the implementation of a comprehensive system of surveillance for global infectious diseases.
  • Develop a comprehensive, multi-year, government-wide research agenda for emerging infectious disease prevention and control in collaboration with state and local public health organizations, industry and academic experts.
  • Recruit, retain and train public health professionals capable of identifying, verifying, preventing, controlling and treating emerging infectious diseases.

More information

The Infectious Diseases Society of America has more about infectious diseases.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Trust for America's Health, news release, Oct. 29, 2008

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