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INTERVIEW: DR GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND, DIRECTOR GENERAL WHO
Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used
DAVID FROST: Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland is the director general of the World Health Organisation, leading the fight against the spread of this disease [SARS] and she joins me now from Geneva. Good morning.
GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Good morning.
DAVID FROST: One British paper, The Independent, has called the disease the first global epidemic of the 21st century, is that how you see it?
GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Yes, I think this is correct and it will, historically, I'm sure be seen that way.
DAVID FROST: And how, what other new moves are you going to institute to try and stop that? I mean do you think you can arrest the spread of this disease or not really?
GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: I think we still have a window of opportunity. There is still, it's a challenge and that we can be able to pursue that we avoid this becoming an endemic, you know, a virus that is endemic around the world, such as has happened with flu and with HIV. At the moment we still have a chance to contain it and to have it go down in the places where outbreaks are already happening and avoid it spreading to new countries.
DAVID FROST: And now many people who've heard, have heard your warnings about not travelling, for instance, to Toronto, and obviously they're outraged over there, the mayor says that you're overreacting, the city is quite safe, that you're destroying their tourist trade. I've never been angrier in my life, he says it's safe to live in the city, so he says it's safe to visit the city. Do you think you made a mistake in labelling Toronto in that way, or were you right?
GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: I think everyone has to realise that in order to have a chance, globally, to avoid this new disease to become a continuous threat and a continuous challenge to all of us, we must take the precautionary measures now. It is now we have a chance to contain it and you have to use public health tools to do so. And all places where outbreaks have come, and certainly those cases that have been unlucky that there are big outbreaks, were a number of cases, have a bigger problem than those that have a few. So it is, of course, a burden on all to have to make efforts of this nature to check at airports and to control the chain of transmission from one person to the next so that you contain the whole outbreak.
DAVID FROST: Yes because -
GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: The situation is if, of course, in several places around the world, that local transmission is happening and that's why when we give advice to people and they ask us where is the risk higher than other places, we must use a public health attitude to make that judgement.
DAVID FROST: Because the thing is that the Canadians are saying, and I quote, that you singled out Toronto for political reasons. The WHO wanted to add a western destination to the eastern one it had already named, so that it -
GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Definitely not.
DAVID FROST: - could claim to be even handed and that you needed a western scapegoat.
GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Well you know I am very surprised if they have said this because both the minister of health and the prime minister have called me, none of them have made any such indication to me. They have been discussing the number of cases, the risks involved, they have not in any way said such a thing. And I'm glad they haven't because that would be outrageous.
DAVID FROST: So if they've said it, it was outrageous. This was also -
GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Yes.
DAVID FROST: Dr Low, chief microbiologist at Mount Sinai hospital, he, but anyway you're saying that's outrageous if he said that. Tell me something, there are now coming up to 300 people who have died of SARS and that's coming up to 300 too many, but we were quoting earlier on that 3000 children in Africa die of malaria every day, which is one statistic that came out on Malaria Day. Are we in fact going over the top do you think, are we reacting too much to SARS or can we never react too much to it?
GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: I, I, no we are not going over the top. We are doing what is prudent and necessary from a public health knowledge base to contain a new disease before it becomes global and constant as an added burden to humanity. We have a chance to do it now, if we work together, globally, across the countries, and do what is necessary to contain the outbreak. There is no treatment, there is no vaccine. With malaria we, happily, have a lot that we can do, if we just do the efforts that we know are effective, and so all of us can help reduce considerably the burden of malaria to children in Africa and around the world. In this case we all are at risk and if the SARS epidemic or the outbreaks reach poor, least developed countries in Africa we have a much bigger problem than as it is now, mainly in industrialised, richer countries that have a public health base, have hospitals that are able to cope, although it's a burden on everyone.
DAVID FROST: So of the two things that people say, that those people who claim to be experts and who say either some believe that we will all develop immunity and it will just peter out in a relatively short time, others fear it's a major problem that will affect people, kill people round the globe for many years. Which view do you think?
GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Well as the global health centre of knowledge, where we have to give prudent, evidence based advice to all our member states and to civil society, we need to be looking seriously into all these arguments and not draw conclusions before we have a sufficient evidence base. At the moment, research is going on in the main laboratories around the world. Networks are being used so that we as soon as possible can answer a number of questions. But meanwhile, unless every country takes seriously that there is a challenge to the public health methods that are being used, and that tools are taken and used in a way that can contain the outbreak, we will not have done the right thing, now, in, with the first epidemic of this century.
DAVID FROST: Would you like to see us in this country make SARS a notifiable disease?
GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: I don't want to get into internal discussions in Britain about what to call it. I think the important thing is that it is contained and that there is no, you know, feeling of concern to really give advice and to do what is necessary with those who are potentially able to transmit the disease to others. The method that is used and the naming is not important for me. But it certainly is a challenge.
DAVID FROST: Thank you very much indeed Dr Brundtland, it's a joy to talk to you again and we appreciate you joining us.
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