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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 March 2007, 02:33 GMT
Tracking diseases across the world
By Pallab Ghosh
BBC science correspondent

The Medical Research Council is to set up a new research centre to monitor the emergence of infectious diseases across the world.

Neil Ferguson
Neil Ferguson: Influential expert on infectious diseases

The aim of the new centre is to identify virulent new diseases early and stop their spread as quickly as possible.

The emergence of the killer respiratory disease Sars four-and-a-half years ago highlighted how vulnerable the world is to new infections.

The growth of international travel and ever greater concentration of people in cities increases the risk of many millions dying in the event of a virulent new disease or a new strain of pandemic flu.

We have the potential to respond to epidemics in a way we didn't in the past
Professor Neil Ferguson

The Medical Research Council's new Centre for Outbreak Analysis will work with international health bodies to identify dangerous new diseases and stamp them out as quickly as possible.

As a first step the new centre will develop a global computer model to predict how any new disease will spread. This system will be the first to contain detailed information about demographics and population flows locally and internationally.

As a result it will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of different strategies in slowing down the spread of the disease more accurately than ever before.

'Substantial effect'

The director of the new centre will be Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London.

He said: "Now we have the potential to respond to epidemics in a way we didn't in the past."

Professor Ferguson made his name by advising government on tackling the spread of BSE and foot-and-mouth.

He is now one of world's most influential experts on infectious diseases including pandemic flu.

Until recently it was thought that nothing could be done to control the spread of virulent infectious diseases.

The policy of most governments still is essentially to lie back, take it and then mop up the damage.

High hopes

But Professor Ferguson is among a new breed of advisers who believe that we now have resources to greatly reduce infection and fatalities.

"We hope to make a difference to the strategic decisions that will have to be made extremely quickly in the event of pandemic flu or another deadly disease emerging somewhere in the world."

In a research paper for the US administration , Professor Ferguson has shown that if pandemic flu is identified early enough and drugs delivered to patients quickly enough the eventual death could be halved.

Tens of millions of lives could potentially be saved.

After many internal battles, Professor Ferguson has convinced the UK government that it is worth investing in drugs and a rapid delivery system. He is now ready to offer these same skills to governments worldwide.

"It's difficult to quantify how many lives could be saved," he says "But we'd hope that these methods would have a substantial effect in the event of a pandemic.


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