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Press Release


From ABC NEWS WORLD NEWS TONIGHT (6:30 PM ET)

October 28, 1999

HEADLINE:

INFECTIOUS DISEASES NOT BEING TAKEN SERIOUSLY ENOUGH

BYLINE:

November 8, 1999, Monday

ANCHORS: PETER JENNINGS REPORTERS: DEBORAH AMOS

We're going to take A CLOSER LOOK this week at infectious disease. In the 1960s, after the smallpox and polio vaccines had been so effective, it was widely believed that the most deadly of the infectious diseases had been beaten back. But there have been several incidents in recent months which make it clear that the threat is still present. There was an outbreak of West Nile virus in New York. Meningitis, which is very contagious, is causing concern on college campuses. And there has been a recent outbreak of tuberculosis, in Russian prisons. Several million people die from infectious diseases every year. And increasingly we hear from experts in the field of public health that the medical community is not taking this seriously enough.

Mr. DICKSON DESPOMMIER (Columbia University): There are very few medical schools in the country that actually give even the basic learning elements with regards to how to understand a disease outbreak, how to investigate whether it's infectious or noninfectious. These are issues which are placed on the back burners of most medical curriculums.

JENNINGS: Moreover, in the last 20 years, more than 20 previously unknown infectious diseases have been discovered. While tuberculosis and malaria have been around for ages, some strains of them have emerged which are resistant to existing drugs.

Mr. DESPOMMIER: These diseases, they don't sleep. They continue to evolve into new things. They try out this gene, they try out that gene, pretty soon they've gotten around the block.

JENNINGS: Every day, 3,000 people in the world die of malaria, more than a million a year. One and a half million die from tuberculosis. The realities of the modern world are partly to blame. The world is getting smaller, tighter, more interconnected. People and products are on the move, as never before. Air travel means a disease can be halfway around the world, in a matter of hours.

Dr. MICHAEL OLDSTONE (Scripps Research Institute): There's no barrier that you can put up against a virus. It can just move continuously across countries and across areas. Those viruses that we think we've licked, can they return again? And the answer to that is yes.

JENNINGS: Anyone who's traveled to the Indian subcontinent or Africa knows that one of the things to be careful about is malaria. As we mentioned, about a million people a year who get it die. Malaria is transmitted from person to person by a mosquito. And, until fairly recently, it was not considered a serious threat here. That is changing. Here's ABC's Deborah Amos.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

It happened here last summer on Long Island, New York. In this hilly country, bordered by wetlands, two 11-year-old boys contracted malaria.

Dr. CLARE BRADLEY (Suffolk County Health Commission): It was very unusual. We haven't had it in as far back as our records can say.

AMOS: There have also been local outbreaks of mosquito-transmitted malaria in California, Texas, Michigan and New Jersey. Some scientists say one reason for these unusual outbreaks is global warming, which can cause extreme weather. Prolonged droughts, followed by heavy rains, have helped provide the right conditions in which mosquitos thrive.

Dr. PAUL EPSTEIN (Public Health Specialist Harvard): In order for there to be local transmission of malaria, one needs a lot of mosquitos and enough warmth to increase the transmission.

AMOS: When it is cold it can take 30 days for the malaria parasite to mature. But a mosquito only lives for 14 days, no transmission. But when it's hot, the malaria parasite can mature rapidly, ready to infect someone before the mosquito dies.

Dr. EPSTEIN: When it's warm nights, the biting and feeding rates go up. The maturation goes up, and it can allow transmission of malaria.

Unidentified Woman: US passport, continue straight ahead.

AMOS: Another ingredient for these malaria outbreaks is the dramatic increase in the number of people moving quickly around the globe bringing the malaria infection back to the United States. Then all it takes is a mosquito.

Dr. EPSTEIN: The mosquito must bite someone with malaria and then bite someone else who didn't have it, and then transmit it to them.

AMOS: Still, all these ingredients do not yet add up to a major malaria outbreak. Mosquito control remains the best defense. What scientists worry about, even more, are viruses which can also thrive in extreme weather conditions, and outbreaks that can come as a complete surprise.

Dr. DON BURKE (Johns Hopkins University): As diseases move to new geographic areas, they interact with pre-existing diseases that are already there, and they swap genes, they evolve, and new agents can come out of that.

AMOS: Public health officials were caught off guard this summer in New York, by a virus never spotted before in the United States.

Dr. BRADLEY: We had not tested for West Nile, so it wasn't even on our radar screen.

AMOS: The West Nile-like fever outbreak escaped detection by routine public health measures. With changes in travel and temperature, surprises are more likely now than ever before.

Professor STEPHEN MORSE (Columbia University Microbiologist): We need to develop better analytic tools for formal risk assessment, for threat assessment, the way we do a national security terms with microorganisms.

AMOS: A virus as a national security risk? It's a new way to look at health threats that some scientists say is long overdue. Deborah Amos, ABC News, Long Island, New York.

JENNINGS: Deborah Amos mentions there the potential of so many people on the move. Tomorrow we'll see how a vacation can lead to an outbreak.

When we return this evening, our last item on WORLD NEWS TONIGHT. Ten years after the Berlin Wall came down, how's it going in the old East bloc?

[Webmaster's Note: malaria is not currently endemic in the United States. Sustained year-to-year transmission of malaria has not occurred since the early 1950s. The point of the story is that surveillance for infectious diseases [everything from measles to tuberculosis to West Nile Virus to malaria] needs to be maintained because of high global mobility. ]

More about scattered malaria cases in non-endemic areas including United States


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