World health report

Press release

Infectious diseases kill over 17 million people a year: WHO warns of global crisis

Nearly 50,000 men, women and children are dying every day from infectious diseases; many of these diseases could be prevented or cured for as little as a single dollar per head, the World Health Organization says in The World Health Report 1996, published today.

At least 30 new diseases have emerged in the last 20 years and now together threaten the health of hundreds of millions of people. For many of these diseases, there is no treatment, cure or vaccine.

"We are standing on the brink of a global crisis in infectious diseases. No country is safe from them. No country can any longer afford to ignore their threat," the Director-General of WHO, Dr Hiroshi Nakajima, says in the report.

The report warns that some major diseases, such as cholera, malaria and tuberculosis are making a deadly comeback in many parts of the world, despite being preventable or treatable. At the same time, many new and highly infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and the notorious Ebola haemorrhagic fever - both of which are incurable - are emerging to pose additional threats. Fears are growing over a possible food-chain link between bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("mad cow disease") and a variant of the incurable Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, due to an infectious agent that attacks the human brain.

Meanwhile, antibiotics and other life-saving drugs used against many diseases are rapidly losing their effectiveness as bacteria and other microbes develop resistance to them. For example, doctors worldwide are losing some of the most useful and affordable antibiotics against the two principal bacteria which cause pneumonia, the major cause of death in children.

The World Health Report 1996 - Fighting disease, fostering development, published by WHO, states that infectious diseases are the world's leading cause of premature death. Of about 52 million deaths from all causes in 1995, more than 17 million were due to infectious diseases, including about 9 million deaths in young children. Up to half the world's population of 5.72 billion are at risk of many endemic diseases. In addition, millions of people are developing cancers as a direct result of preventable infections by bacteria and viruses, the report says.

"The optimism of a relatively few years ago that many of these diseases could easily be brought under control has led to a fatal complacency among the international community. This complacency is now costing millions of lives - lives that we have the knowledge and means to save, yet that we are allowing to trickle through our fingers" Dr Nakajima says.

"The socioeconomic development of many nations - their prospect of a better future - is being crippled by the burden of these diseases. Other countries are paying a huge price in lost foreign currency income from food trade and tourism as a result of epidemics of cholera, plague and other diseases."

"The world has lost sight of its priority to reduce poverty through better health and foster development by fighting disease. Today, infectious diseases are not only a health issue; they have become a social problem with tremendous consequences for the well-being of the individual and the world we live in. We need to recognize them as a common threat that has been ignored, at great cost, for too long, and to build global solidarity to confront them."

"What is required is the commitment of the international community to help countries most at risk to help themselves. By helping each other, nations protect the world and protect themselves."

According to the report, many countries have failed to invest adequately in the control of common infectious diseases. Less prevention is now resulting in rising treatment costs.