. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Infectious Diseases Hit 'Crisis' Level, WHO Says

LOS ANGELES -- Declaring a "global crisis" and warning that "no country is safe from infectious diseases," the World Health Organization reported Monday that scourges such as malaria and AIDS continue to run rampant, killing more than 17 million people worldwide last year, including 9 million children.

Taken together, bacterial, viral and parasitic diseases remain the world's leading cause of premature death, accounting for one out of every three deaths, the report says.

The figures reflect a disheartening trend, in which old enemies are resurfacing to thwart 20th-century medicine's ability to control infection. For instance, the No. 1 infectious disease, tuberculosis, took 3.1 million lives last year, up 400,000 from WHO figures for 1993.

The report also suggests with uncommon starkness that in today's global community populations mix with unprecedented ease and disease organisms have the potential to spread among countries at jet speed.

"Contrary to the expectations of 10 or 20 years ago, when it was thought that infectious diseases were on the decline, we have a real problem now," said Dr. David Brandling-Bennett, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization and a consultant on the report.

But WHO also gives reasons for optimism. Globally, the average life expectancy of a person born in 1995 is three years greater than that of someone born 10 years ago.

And the longevity gap between developed and undeveloped countries has narrowed to 13.3 years, down from 25 in 1955.

Slightly fewer babies came into the world dangerously underweight last year compared to a decade ago, while dozens of countries have significantly improved their infant mortality rate.

And some infectious diseases have been brought under control. Widespread use of tetanus vaccine prevented an estimated 700,000 deaths from the disease last year, the report says. Poliomyelitis is on the verge of being eradicated, and Guinea worm disease is "being eliminated from 11 West African countries."

"The message should not be all doom and gloom by any means," Brandling-Bennett said of the report.

Still, the overarching tone of World Health Report 1996 is rather alarming, in keeping with recent studies on emerging and surging infectious diseases by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the National Academy of Sciences. The WHO report is intended to alert public health authorities in UN member countries to the need to beef up disease surveillance around the world. It accuses policy-makers and researchers of "fatal complacency" for being caught off guard.

"Today's crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better," WHO director general Dr. Hiroshi Nakajima says in the introduction.

"Unless we take concerted action, those problems are going to get worse."