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UN health agency hosts meeting to fight spread of animal diseases to humans

UN health agency hosts meeting to fight spread of animal diseases to humans

SARS coronavirus
With SARS, bird flu and other diseases linked to animals threatening human epidemics, the United Nations health agency is hosting a three-day meeting of international experts at its Geneva headquarters next week to improve surveillance, avert the occurrence and minimize the impact of such illnesses.

The meeting, which the World Health Organization (WHO) is holding jointly with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Office International des Epizooties (OIE) and the Dutch Health Council starting on Monday, seeks to identify the factors that allow diseases to jump from animals to humans (zoonoses).

International experts will consider what lessons can be learned from the numerous outbreaks of zoonoses, including the recent outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and bird flu. Other illnesses, such as “mad cow” disease, its human form, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and Nipah virus infections, will also be analyzed to determine measures to prevent the emergence of similar diseases in the future.

"WHO seeks to protect global public health," WHO Coordinator for Zoonoses Control François Meslin said in a news release today. "As recent outbreaks have demonstrated, inter-sectoral and inter-disciplinary cooperation is crucial to ensuring that international public health is not compromised."

Transmission of diseases like SARS or bird flu from animals to humans depends on many factors, including complex interactions between human and animal hosts, the causative microbial agent, and the environment, but ecological changes caused by human activity represent by far the most important factor in the emergence of such a disease.

Earlier this year a highly contagious strain of bird flu erupted in Asia, sparking fears that in a worst-case scenario it could mutate into a deadly human-to-human infection.

And this month nine new confirmed or suspected cases SARS have been reported in China, where the illness first emerged in November 2002 before spreading to kill 774 people and infect more than 8,000 worldwide, the vast majority of them in China, by the middle of 2003.