Since WHO issued its first SARS alert on 12 March, 17 countries have been affected, over 100 people have died and nearly 3,000 people have been infected. The indirect effect of SARS on normal day to day life in affected areas and on the economy of Hong Kong in particular has of course been much wider.
However, so far at least, SARS is still an emerging disease with relatively modest impact on human life. And to the extent that health authorities worldwide mostly have responded quickly to the challenges thrown at them – thanks in no small amount to WHO’s surveillance networks – we can take heart in the fact that our global defense systems can work.
But this is by no means so for all emerging infectious diseases. Worldwide, infectious diseases remain the leading cause of mortality, with 17 million deaths each year. Since the 1970s at least 30 new infectious diseases have emerged for which no effective treatment exists. And in this modern world, diseases can spread further and faster than ever before, threatening our lives, societies, and economies.
The global response to some disease threats has come under intense scrutiny – notably HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria – with some impressive successes. But the majority of diseases remain classified as “neglected”. If the international community is to respond to these effectively then all the weapons in the existing global armoury will need to be deployed. Sensitive application of biotechnology, genomics and informatics will contribute, as will more effective public-private partnerships in R&D, and efforts to overcome market failure in development of new drugs and vaccines. But a more joined-up approach by leading economies also is necessary.
OECD countries meeting in Lisbon in October 2002 debated how they could better work together and with other international agencies to deliver on these challenges. The key messages are reported in “Biotechnology and Sustainability – The Fight Against Infectious Disease” available online at the OECD Biotechnology homepage (see link below). A determined and sustained international partnership is required to decouple the impact of infectious disease from the engine of economic growth. If anyone is in any doubt, ask Hong Kong.
©OECD Observer No 237, May 2003