Infectious Diseases—Disastrous yet Preventable

WHILE devastating earthquakes and catastrophic floods make front-page news, the silent spread of infectious diseases rarely attracts the media spotlight. Even so, “the death toll from infectious diseases (such as AIDS, malaria, respiratory diseases and diarrhoea) is 160 times greater than the number killed in last year’s natural disasters,” states a Red Cross/Red Crescent press release of June 2000. “And the situation is getting worse.”

Two main factors are said to be responsible for this shocking figure. One is the unrelenting spread of AIDS, which kills 300 people every hour. AIDS “is no longer a disease, it is a disaster,” says Peter Walker, director of disaster policy for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “Such a widespread disease destroys the workforce and shatters the economy.” The other factor is the deterioration of public health systems, resulting in a dramatic comeback of older diseases such as tuberculosis, syphilis, and malaria. For instance, one Asian country is presently reporting 40,000 new tuberculosis cases every year. In one Eastern European country, syphilis infections have increased 40-fold in the last decade.

The irony is, however, that although infectious diseases have turned into disasters, they are actually among the most preventable disasters. In fact, the report says that the majority of the 13 million deaths from infectious diseases that occurred in 1999 “could have been prevented at a cost of US$ 5 per person.” If the world’s governments were willing to spend $5 per person on health care—a total of $30 billion—imagine how many needless deaths could be prevented!

Although this is a considerable amount, it shrinks when compared with what the world spends on other services. In one recent year, for example, global military spending topped $864 billion—$144 per person. Just think of how much more is spent on preparing for war than on preventing the spread of diseases! Perhaps stemming the tide of infectious diseases is simply beyond mankind’s reach—not because of insufficient funds, but for deeper reasons. After all, human governments cannot even set the right priorities.

[Picture Credit Lines on page 31]

X ray: New Jersey Medical School—National Tuberculosis Center

Photo of man coughing: WHO/Thierry Falise