WASHINGTON - With health experts across the world scrambling to identify a deadly new pneumonia-like disease, a report released Tuesday urges the United States to take the lead in global efforts to detect and counter such new infections.
"Infectious diseases cross national borders and require a global response," said Margaret Hamburg, chairwoman of the committee that prepared the new study for the Institute of Medicine, which advises the government on medical questions.
As if to prove their point, an urgent search is under way to isolate the causes of the new illness, which appears to have originated in Asia.
So far, severe acute respiratory syndrome has killed nine people, seven in Asia and two in Canada. More than 150 people, mostly in Hong Kong and Vietnam, have fallen ill. The illness' rapid spread through the Far East, and then the discovery of two clusters in Canada, caused a rare worldwide health alert to be issued Saturday by the World Health Organization.
"The United States should help lead efforts to reverse the complacency in industrialized countries" regarding infectious diseases, said Hamburg, vice president for biological programs at Nuclear Threat Initiative, a private group working to prevent the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Microbes live in every conceivable ecological niche in the planet, the report observes. Many are beneficial, but others can cause deadly diseases.
"Microbial threats continue to emerge, re-emerge and persist," the report said. "Others are previously known pathogens that are infecting new or larger groups or spreading into new geographic areas."
"The magnitude and urgency of the problem demand renewed concern and commitment," the report said.
Other new infections in recent years in the United States and abroad have included hantavirus, Nipah virus and West Nile virus.
New infections are spread by the increasing ease and speed of travel and the continuing growth of cities, which bring huge numbers of people together.
This country's ability to track and respond to infectious diseases depends on a public health structure that has been neglected for years, the report said.
It urged federal, state and local governments to direct resources to rebuild and maintain the staff and facilities needed to detect and deal with new diseases.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should work to improve reporting of infectious diseases by health care providers, including automated electronic lab reporting, the report said.
It also said the United States should help reduce the global health threat by working with the World Health Organization, concentrating in particular on threats in developing countries. It said global surveillance, especially for new infections, is critical.
The report recommended that the U.S. government:
-Develop a national vaccine strategy to protect the public from new infections.
-Work with industry and researchers to ensure rapid development and use of vaccines for both naturally occurring and introduced threats.
-Ensure national security by stockpiling and preparing distribution systems for antibiotics, antiviral drugs and antitoxins.
-Expand efforts to prevent the growth of drug-resistant bacteria by reducing the unnecessary use of antibiotics, including prohibition of their use to promote animal growth if the same antibiotic is used in humans.
-Join international groups in helping ensure the development and distribution of vaccines for diseases that primarily affect people in poor countries.
The Institute of Medicine is a private organization that provides health policy advice to the government under a congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences.