Cleaning the streets in Guangdong,
after the SARS outbreak
At the top of the agenda for the UN health agency’s assembly is SARS, the flu-like virus that has claimed the lives of 642 people and infected around 7,860 worldwide in the last three months.
The 10-day gathering will discuss how to improve ways of monitoring and exchanging information on infectious disease outbreaks like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
WHO director-general Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland considered the outbreak of SARS a "wake-up call", urging countries across the globe to cooperate in fighting the pneumonia-like disease.
"It has never been clearer than today that a secure, healthy future for us all depends on cooperation across borders and between institutions," she told the assembly.
WHO officials warned about the possibility of outbreaks of diseases similar to SARS in the future.
"There will be more outbreaks like SARS,” said David Heymann, who is in charge of the WHO office that deals with contagious diseases. “Influenza will almost certainly occur as it did three times in the last century as well as diseases we do not yet know."
Brundtland highlighted the importance of exchanging information about diseases to avoid the possibility of outbreaks. "We need to share information globally even faster than modern travel," Brundtland said.
WHO initially criticised China for its reluctance to provide details of the spread of the deadly virus in the southern province of Guangdong, from which SARS originated in November.
"The ill effects of delay in the identification and acknowledgement of SARS are self-evident and cannot be repeated," US Health Secretary Tommy Thompson said in his speech to the assembly.
Heymann said one way to strengthen the world's defences would be to invest more heavily in laboratories and epidemiological research.
The search for funds to finance such research has already started, according to Heymann. Drug firms, investment banks and other multinationals are considering setting up a new fund to finance research into SARS, he said.
The WHO chief said the companies, which he did not name, were “talking among themselves” about a new fund, but no decision had yet been made.
The talks, he said, followed growing concern in global business circles over the outbreak of SARS.
The International Labor Office has said that SARS could cause a 30 percent drop in the number of jobs in the tourism industries of affected Asian countries.
WHO had already allocated between three and four million dollars to combat the disease.