The first global conference on biological threat reduction, hosted by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO), brought together a range of participants.
Specialists from public health, animal health, scientists, veterinarians and security sectors from international organisations and national governments attended the gathering.
Among the diseases discussed were rinderpest, a deadly disease also known as cattle plague that was officially wiped out of livestock in May 2011. Samples of the virus are still stored in dozens of laboratories worldwide.
The OIE is concerned poor security or a malicious act could see the virus reintroduced to cattle stocks, which it warns, would cause food prices to rise. It wants all samples stored by laboratories to be destroyed.
All animal disease agents, including those transmissible to humans, have the potential to escape by accident from laboratories or to be used as biological weapons because of their low cost and ready availability.
Once infectious diseases have been eradicated special risks arise from the potential for accidental or deliberate infection.
“Unless the international community takes meaningful action to fulfil their obligations to destroy and sequester eradicated pathogens (such as rinderpest), risks will increase over time as more diseases become eradicated,” said Dr Bernard Vallet, director general of the OIE.
Delegates stressed the importance of good governance of animal and public health national systems, allowing early detection and rapid response to any new disease outbreak. That would protect the society and neighbouring countries from potential disasters of natural, accidental or intentional origin, they concluded.
Participants agreed the health and security sectors needed to improve cooperation and speak with one voice on the urgent need to invest in strengthening health systems.
Social and economic costs
The social and economic costs and benefits of investing in health systems in peacetime far outweighed the costs of responding to a crisis linked with a preventable biological disaster, they argued. Investments in the systems needed to support these policies should be considered a priority in all countries, they agreed.
Internationally adopted standards were the basis for global infectious disease prevention and control, including early detection and rapid response to biological events, and for strong animal health and human health systems, the experts insisted.
“By complying with international standards for health systems, set by the OIE and WHO, countries demonstrate that they stand a good chance of detecting and tackling animal and human health threats,” said Vallet.
Many countries are unable to meet these standards, so the OIE, together with the WHO, has established a comprehensive global framework for strengthening in parallel public and animal health systems.
“In addition, we have made progress in establishing good governance in the animal sector, as we have already responded to requests for assistance from 133 of our 188 member countries,” Vallet added.