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Serious Health Hazards Continue to Endanger Asia

With the immediate threat of SARS in decline, health experts warn Asian countries to keep up the fight against other diseases endemic to the region. Serious public health hazards continue to endanger much of Asia.

Even as the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is winding down, the World Health Organization says the fight against communicable diseases in Asia is far from over.

While SARS is has been the most notorious, other diseases are far more deadly in Asia. Tuberculosis, typhoid, and HIV all claim more lives than SARS and plague the region. Malaria and dengue fever, both carried by mosquitoes in much of Asia, also are more deadly.

The same day Taiwan announced just one new suspected SARS case, tropical disease experts say malaria killed as many as 1,000 people in Asia. The WHO estimates malaria claims more than one million lives a year worldwide. SARS has killed less than 900 people.

According to the WHO, disease outbreaks in Asia have been rising for much of the past decade. For instance, there has been a resurgence in dengue fever, which causes fever and joint pain. Since January more than 15,000 people have been infected in Vietnam, Malaysia, New Caledonia, and Australia.

Dengue outbreaks tend to rise and fall in a natural three or four-year cycle. During off years health officials have trouble maintaining public vigilance against the disease.

Dr. Christophel Eva-Maria works for the WHO and has tracked dengue in the region since 1998.

"Dengue must be taken seriously year by year," said Dr. Eva-Maria. "In 2001 we had 130,000 cases. While in the bad year, in '98, we had 350,000 cases."

Dr. Christophel says there is a real concern that a new outbreak could be just around the corner.

But Dr. Christophel worries that campaigns against dengue and other deadly diseases do not receive the same financial support that the SARS fight garnered. Without sufficient money, it will be difficult to respond appropriately to new outbreaks.

"In the fight against dengue, it is a funding issue," said Dr. Christophel. "Due to the epidemic nature we have to react like the SARS team had to react and there are insufficient funds."

The WHO hopes lessons learned in the fight against SARS can be applied to other diseases. Experts say better surveillance techniques and heightened public awareness of health threats can limit the spread of dengue, malaria, and other illnesses.