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Millions Die Of Preventable Diseases

Newborn Ethiopian infant, undernourished. Famine. Africa.
AP
Thirteen million people died last year of diseases that could have been prevented at a cost of as little as $5 per person, according to a report published Wednesday by the Red Cross.

An estimated 150 million people have died from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria alone since 1945, compared to 23 million in wars, said the World Disasters Report issued by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

"We need only to look at the death toll from infectious disease to see the results of this dangerous trend. We need to make treating infectious disease a priority," Didier Cherpitel, the federation's secretary general, said at a press conference releasing the findings.

"While infectious diseases claim the most lives, they are also the most preventable disasters," a press release announcing the report said. The report estimates that most of last year's 13 million deaths from infectious disease could have been prevented at a cost of $5 per person.

Last year, 160 times more people died from AIDS, malaria, respiratory diseases and diarrhea than were killed by natural disasters, including massive earthquakes in Turkey, floods in Venezuela and cyclones in India, the report said.

The escalation of AIDS infections in Africa was singled out as one of the key areas of concern.

"Once a disease like AIDS reaches the kind of proportions we see in sub-Saharan Africa it is no longer a disease, it is a disaster," said Peter Walker, director of disaster policy for the federation. "Such a widespread disease destroys the work force and shatters the economy."

More than 23 million people in the region are estimated to have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS—70 percent of the global total, the report said. Across the world, 300 people now die hourly from AIDS, it said.

Government budget cuts were partly to blame for the high numbers, the report said.

"When a government has to cut back on spending, where does it cut back? Inevitably on health care and education," Walker said.

The report noted that in 1998, the level of international emergency aid rose for the first time in four years, but funding for primary health care continued to drop. Health funding for developing nations from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development sank to the lowest levels since 1991, it said.

Public expenditure on health in poor countries averages just 1 percent of gross domestic product, compared to 6 percent in rich countries, the report said. As a result, diseases that once were under control are reappearing, it said.

Some of that disparity could be due to economic programs imposed on countries by international lending institutions like the World Bank. "A 1995 World Bank survey of 53 countries showed a 15 per cent averag decline in the health spending per person following structural adjustment," the report said.

While the Red Cross does not track the rise of preventable diseases on a year-to-year basis, figures for diseases such as malaria showed worrying trends, the federation said.

Malaria—which kills 2.6 million people a year, 70 percent of them children—is appearing in countries such as Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. North Korea has reported 40,000 new cases of tuberculosis this year. And Russian cases of syphilis have increased 40-fold since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the report said.

The report said changing people's behavior saves more lives than spending money on expensive institutions and equipment.

"Impressive real results come from widespread community health programs to vaccinate children against preventable disease and encouraging people to protect themselves from malaria by using treated bed nets or from AIDS by using condoms," it said.

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