Perils from disease, new and old Unknown dangers: International travel could spread epidemics world-wide.

November 02, 1995

WHEN THE DEADLY Ebola virus reappeared earlier this year, FTC hemorrhaging and fever killed 245 people, a quarter of them health care workers treating other victims. The outbreak also took a heavy economic toll on the remote region of Zaire where it appeared. But the rest of the world was lucky -- very lucky. Had the virus appeared in a more populated area, especially one with an international airport, the disease could have spread to the four corners of the globe within days of the outbreak.

That nightmarish possibility troubles the World Health Organization. WHO officials warn that new diseases like the HIV virus that produced an AIDS crises in many countries, or old ones like the plague that broke out in India in 1994, are appearing all too frequently. Dr. David Heymann, director of a new WHO division devoted to emerging diseases, says, "It is clear that an outbreak of disease anywhere must now be perceived as a threat to all countries."

According to Dr. Heymann, at least 29 new diseases have emerged over the past two decades. The rapid increase is due to several factors, including over-crowded cities with inadequate supplies of clean water and decent housing as well as international mobility, allowing travelers to spread infections before they even show symptoms of the disease. It doesn't help that in many areas of the world, health care systems are under such strain that traditional public health functions are deteriorating.

The bubonic plague, tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera -- all these diseases were once regarded as problems solved. Now, even Americans in comfortable homes could be threatened by health crises far from home.

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