This is turning out to be a bad year for public health scares. Bird flu in Cambodia has already claimed six lives, the most recent being a three-year-old girl who died this week. Now a mysterious respiratory disease similar to the Sars virus, which took nearly 800 lives in 30 countries a decade ago, has surfaced and killed five of the 11 people known to have caught it. Worse, it is feared to be capable of person-to-person transmission, although British health officials stress that such contagion would require prolonged exposure.
While the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus originated from palm civets in China, the source of this new disease appears to be bats and most infections have occurred in the Middle East. With the speed of modern air travel and the number of people always on the move, no country is immune from what once would have been a localised outbreak. Thai health officials need to be ready to cope with any eventuality, a reminder that is necessary after the bungling that characterised the handling of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009.
Politicians and health authorities initially played the outbreak down and then went into full panic mode as the death toll mounted. Yet despite all the money spent, our medical technicians were unable to produce a vaccine safely and in time for it to be of any use. Why they were unable to replicate the manufacture of the WHO-approved vaccine remains a mystery, given that other countries apparently had no problems. Had the flu virus mutated into an enhanced strain we could have been in serious trouble. In this instance, the ability of the medical authorities to counter emerging diseases was tested and found wanting. Proper contingency planning is vital to avoid any repeat of this debacle.
Given the public appetite for sensationalism, it is understandable why so much media attention is being given to the implications of a possible new Sars-type threat. There is also no question that sufficient funds will be made available to combat this potential global health hazard. And that is as it should be. The trouble is there is never enough money to go around to fund eradication programmes for the older killer diseases which are no longer a problem in richer countries. Tuberculosis alone accounts for more than 12,000 deaths a year in Thailand, with up to 100,000 new cases diagnosed annually.
Rather than competing for cash, the threat from the newer diseases should serve as a catalyst to motivate the global health community into ridding the world of existing epidemics. But there is a great deal of complacency about TB, despite nearly a third of the world's population being affected, and it shows in the lack of investment in treatments. Malaria is another scourge with half the world's population vulnerable and one child dying every minute in the poorest African countries.
It would have been encouraging to hear Public Health Minister Pradit Sintavanarong dispel some of this gloom. But what he had to say recently was hardly encouraging. He warned that more than 70,000 people had been infected with mosquito-borne dengue fever last year and that the spread of the disease could be even worse this year. No longer is it confined to the rainy season, to young children or to provinces outside Bangkok. In fact the capital had 9,569 known sufferers. Of the 74,250 victims nationwide, 79 died.
No treatment existed when the country was first ravaged by dengue fever in 1958 and none exists today. This would be a good time for candidates running for Bangkok governor to put mosquito eradication schemes on their campaign platforms and enforce them if elected.