July 6, 2009

Red Cross Warns Against Epidemics In Poor Nations

A Red Cross official has sharply criticized the way countries are handling the impact of communicable disease in poor countries, in contrast with flu or heart disease in rich nations.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies released a reported on Monday that warned the crippling and growing burden of epidemics like dengue fever, polio, or meningitis was not being sufficiently addressed.

"We do not see interest, we only see vague, uncoordinated interest in high-profile issues such as influenza -- which is in itself a great risk, but not the only one," said Tammam Aloudat, the federation's senior officer for health in emergencies.

The H1N1 virus, or most commonly known as the swine flu, has "killed so far about 150 people, the potential for risk is massive, but what we have today is 14 million people dying mostly unnecessarily from easily preventable diseases that require little resources," he told journalists.

The Red Cross report, which was titled "The Epidemic Divide," said a focus on death rates has helped increase attention and resources to tackle non-communicable disease like heart attacks and cancers, which is now the leading killer worldwide.

However, the dominant threat in developing countries is still preventable infectious disease, and their societies were not only ailing because the huge mortality, but also the debilitating impact of illness on their development.

The report also said that resources to deal with such epidemics remained "scarce."

The Red Cross said that mosquito-born dengue fever kills about 18,000 people every year and infects nine million people annually, keeping them away from work and amplifying the failings of under-resourced health care.

The report said that "complacency" towards current epidemics was a "major threat in itself."

The report highlighted the resurgence of measles in Europe to prove that Western nations were not immune, especially with easy international travel.

Aloudat said that the World Health Organization's role in setting international priorities and raising attention "could have done better, including ourselves."

"I am saying that there are shortcomings on all sides... Unless all those people sit together and decide the agenda we are not going to win this one."

Aloudat also expressed concern on the shortfall in meeting UN development goals, which include health targets.

"Complacency happens when goals are set and resources aren't allocated," the Federation doctor said.

In the 1990s, a WHO-led immunization campaign eliminated polio in over 120 countries, but failed its target to eradicate the lethal or crippling disease entirely by 2005.

According to the report, since then, polio has re-emerged across Africa after donors lost momentum, routine immunizations dropped off and local obstacles emerged.

About a $2.4 million dollar fund was recently asked for by the Federation, for 80 million polio vaccines, but only less than half of that funding has been received.

Meningitis, which often surges to epidemic proportions in Africa, kills half of the people that it infects, while neglected emerging diseases affect one-sixth of the world's population, mainly in poor countries.

The report called for more resources, immunization, community prevention, better access to health services, clean water and sanitation in poor nations.

"What we are saying is: if we are going to be serious, it's not influenza alone, it's not any issue alone, it's a whole connected subject," Aloudat explained.


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