India joins US-led initiative to boost health security

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By Saroj Mohanty
New Delhi, Feb 20 (IANS)
Despite the recent dissonance over quality of drugs and trade practices, India has joined a US-led initiative to build a global system to prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks of infectious diseases which could be launching specific projects to secure a healthier world.

Besides India and the US, 25 other countries from the developed and developing world, including China, and the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Organization for Animal Health last week joined what is called the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) and discussed plans to prevent diseases that are naturally occurring, intentionally produced through releases of dangerous pathogens, or the result of a laboratory accident.

Over the past decade, health has become a growing international concern that has engaged considerable attention of the foreign and security policy makers as certain health-related issues adversely affect or create risks for national and international security or economic growth.

“In our interconnected world, we are all vulnerable,” says Laura Holgate of the US National Security Council.

The H5N1 Avian Influenza that broke out in 2003 still circulates in some countries. Last year, China reported a new type of bird flu and a deadly new respiratory virus emerged in the Middle East. And scientists detected the spread of some older diseases to new locales, including the first appearance of chikungunya in the Caribbean.

India and the US, as part of their strategic partnership, have been discussing and collaborating on public health issues. Under the India-US Health Initiative, an inter-agency mechanism, the two countries have formed a working group on infectious diseases. Sources said India could be announcing projects related to the GHSA.

The GHSA is the latest in a string of Obama administration initiatives to tackle bigger global challenges and aims to build a structure for bio-surveillance.

“Biological threats can emerge anywhere, travel quickly, and take lives,” said Lisa Monaco, assistant to President Barack Obama for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, at the GHSA launch.

The US looks to partner with at least 30 countries over the next five years to protect 4 billion people. The defence department will partner with countries to implement efforts in the field of epidemiology, diagnostic tests and other capabilities.

Later this year, the White House will host an event to review progress and chart the way forward.

Experts say threats arise mainly from five known sources — globalization of travel and food supply; rise of drug-resistant pathogens; emergence and spread of new microbes; acceleration of biological science capabilities and the risk that these capabilities may cause the inadvertent or intentional release of pathogens; and continued concerns about terrorist acquisition, development, and use of biological agents.

WHO reports that multidrug-resistant tuberculosis has infected a half-million people worldwide. Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) is an antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria that is deadly and can even spread its resistance capabilities to other bacteria colonies.

And when countries lack the will or the ability to detect and contain diseases, they spread faster than ever before with increased global travel and trade, impacting negatively the productivity and quality of life in many countries and regions of the world.

It is estimated that the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, inflicted damages of $30 billion to regional economies in just four months. The 2001 anthrax attacks cost more than $1 billion to clean up. For decades, AIDS spread silently before detection and response, causing many deaths and untold miseries.

The GHSA aims to prevent avoidable epidemics by keeping to a minimum the number of labs worldwide that store dangerous microbes and by extending vaccination programmes. According to Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the initiative will make sure if countries are growing dangerous organisms in laboratories they are kept safely.

The CDC conducted two global health security demonstration projects last year in partnership with Vietnam and Uganda to strengthen laboratory systems, develop strong public health emergency operations centres and create real-time data sharing in health emergencies. It would replicate the two projects in 10 more countries this year.

The GHSA aims to detect threats early by linking disease-monitoring systems of individual countries, developing real-time electronic reporting systems, and promoting faster sharing of biological samples, such as throat swabs and blood samples from people with a new form of influenza.

But experts say it is going to be a long haul and say 80 percent of the nations are not prepared to deal with new pandemics. Even the targets of the WHO-monitored 2005 agreement under which 194 countries had vowed to strengthen surveillance systems by 2012 had not been met.

Also, there could be other issues at play, such as a sovereign state’s ownership rights over pathogens found within national borders and its decision not to share disease samples. In 2007, Indonesia had invoked “viral sovereignty” and argued that it was unfair to expect it to send samples of H5N1 avian influenza virus to Western laboratories that could be used by pharma companies to produce a vaccine which would then be sold at prices that most Indonesians could not afford.

(Saroj Mohanty can be contacted at

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