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Last Updated: Monday, 19 May, 2003, 15:00 GMT 16:00 UK
Warning over new killer diseases
Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland
Dr Brundtland urged countries to work together to fight diseases
Global health chiefs have urged countries around the world to be on alert for new killer diseases.

The World Health Organization has warned that new diseases could spread in the wake of the deadly Sars virus.

Officials have urged governments to work more closely together to try to deal with the threat.

The call was made at the WHO's annual assembly of its 192 member states in Geneva on Monday.

'More outbreaks'

Dr David Heymann, head of its communicable diseases unit, suggested fresh outbreaks of deadly viruses were almost inevitable.

"There will be more outbreaks like SARS, there's bound to be more," he told journalists.

There will be more outbreaks like SARS
Dr David Heymann

He said the biggest threat would be an outbreak of a deadly strain of influenza. "The big concern is influenza," he said.

The last flu pandemic in 1919 claimed 40 million lives across the globe.

Sars has so far claimed over 600 lives and has infected nearly 8,000 cases, mainly in Asia.

Dr Guenael Rodier, director of communicable disease surveillance, said the death toll could have been substantially higher if the virus had been influenza.

"The good news is that is was not influenza," he said. "Influenza has a capacity to spread much, much faster."

Earlier, WHO director general Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland called for greater cooperation between governments to fight the spread of deadly viruses.

"It has never been clearer than today that a secure, healthy future for us all depends on cooperation across borders and between institutions," she told the assembly.

"We can no longer rely on national efforts alone to implement the scaled up system of global alert and response that the world now needs."

International cooperation

Dr Brundtland also highlighted the importance of countries sharing information on diseases.

China has come under fire for failing to disclose the true extent of its Sars outbreak when it first emerged.

"We need to get access to information about diseases outbreaks as soon as they occur," Dr Brundtland said.

"We need to share that information globally even faster than modern travel. We need to share successful strategies adopted by countries to contain the disease and learn from what does not work.

"We need to ascertain whether control measures are being properly taken by affected countries."

UK Health Secretary Alan Milburn backed the call. He called on the WHO to carry out checks in every country to see if they are adequately prepared to deal with new diseases.

He said the WHO should be given new powers to demand that countries have proper systems in place.

"Where infectious diseases in one part of the world can become within days, if not hours, a problem for another; each and every nation owes an obligation, one to another, to put in place the surveillance, the capacity and the planning to combat these new threats," he told the assembly.

"I hope the WHO will lead this new global resolve by preparing a nation by nation audit of our state of international preparedness."

Sars is expected to dominate the agenda at the assembly, which continues until 28 May.

The assembly is also set to adopt a landmark treaty aimed at cutting smoking related deaths by 4.9 million annually.

It imposes curbs on the advertising, marketing and sale of cigarettes and tobacco products.

In addition, the assembly is expected to elect Jong Wook Lee of South Korea to the post of director general, later this week. It follows Dr Brundtland's decision not to seek a second five-year term.

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