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Threat perceived from emerging microbes.

Developed countries such as the United States have become too complacent about medical science's ability to snuff out whatever novel infectious diseases may flare up, warns a report released last week by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. As a consequence, the report concludes, modern society has left itself vulnerable to the emergence of new microbial infections, some of which have the potential to sweep the globe with the severity of AIDS.

Lyme disease, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and the mysterious streptococcal bacterium that killed "Muppets" creator Jim Henson are all 20th-century illustrations that existing antibiotics and vaccines can't completely insulate humans from infectious disease, says Robert E. Shope, who co-chaired the committee that drafted the new report.

"The medical community and society at large have tended to view acute infectious diseases as a problem of the past, but that assumption is wrong," says Shope, an epidemiologist at Yale University School of Medicine. "The danger posed by infectious diseases has not gone away -- it's worsening."

The report, drafted by a 19-member panel of physicians and scientists, asserts that the United States lacks the ability to mobilize quickly against emerging infectious diseases. For example, it concludes that all of the yellow fever vaccine stocks in North America would be exhausted within several days if the disease were to break out in New Orleans -- a city that was hard hit by yellow fever early in this century and that still harbors the mosquitoes capable of spreading the disease. In such an outbreak, 100,000 people would become ill with yellow fever and 10,000 would die within three months, according to the report, titled "Emerging Infections: Microbial Threats to Health in the United States."

To prevent such an occurrence, the committee calls for creating stockpiles of drugs and vaccines or establishing centers, modeled on the Department of Energy's national laboratories, that could increase production of such pharmaceuticals at a moment's notice. The committee also recommends improving current disease surveillance programs and training private physicians and small hospitals to consistently report cases of suspected new microbial diseases to the Centers for Disease Control. In addition, the committee proposes developing new pesticides to combat the organisms that spread infectious diseases.

Microbiologist Joshua Lederberg of the Rockefeller University in New York City, the other co-chairman of the committee, estimates that implementing all of the panel's recommendations in the United States would require less than half a billion dollars. "This is not a megaprogram," Lederberg comments. He adds that while the panel did not draft a budget detailing the costs of their suggested changes, "even tens of millions would make a very big difference."

"Although we do not know where the next microbe or virus will appear ... we know that new outbreaks are certain," says Shope. "Unless we become more vigilant, some of these outbreaks could become deadly epidemics."
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Title Annotation:stockpiles of drugs and vaccines may be needed for emergence of multiples of bacterial infections
Author:Ezzell, Carol
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Oct 24, 1992
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