Infectious diseases like avian flu focus of summit
Seattle Times staff reporter
Could avian influenza, which has killed more than half of the 97 people who contracted it in Asia since 2003, become a worldwide epidemic?
At a time when millions of people around the globe are dying of HIV/AIDS and malaria for want of drugs or vaccines, how urgent are the threats of chronic conditions such as obesity and heart disease?
Those were among the global health issues that drew 260 researchers, government officials and health leaders from 16 countries to Seattle for the inaugural Pacific Health Summit this week. The three-day, invitation-only event, which ends today, also highlighted Seattle's emergence as an important center for global health matters.
Dr. Lee Jong-wook, director general of the World Health Organization in Geneva, was one of those in attendance.
Infectious diseases were a key topic, given the worldwide attention focused on avian flu, sometimes called bird flu. So far, it has affected relatively few humans, and those who did contract it got it from infected chicken and ducks. The big fear is that the virus will change — that it will become highly contagious among people, causing millions of deaths.
"We are very much concerned" about the avian flu, said Dr. Ding-Shinn Chen, dean of the medical college at the National Taiwan University.
International authorities and researchers "should be unified to fight it together," Chen said, noting that 1.5 million people travel each year between Taiwan and Hong Kong, where bird flu first appeared in 1997.
An arm of the National Institutes of Health has begun a fast-track trial to test a human vaccine for H5N1, the strain of virus that causes avian flu. So far, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 53 people in Southeast Asia have died from avian flu.
This week's health summit also focused on chronic and noncommunicable diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, which WHO says are a bigger health burden than infectious diseases in every region of the world except Africa.
Dr. Christopher Elias, president of PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health), a Seattle-based nonprofit that works to improve health internationally, said the event was a testament to Seattle's influence on global health-care issues.
The University of Washington, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and especially the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have helped to attract top scientific minds to Seattle, Elias said.
The Gates Foundation has committed $5 billion to address global health issues in the past five years. The foundation's annual charitable spending under U.S. law has to be at least 5 percent of its assets, or $1.5 billion. That rivals the annual budget of the World Health Organization, a United Nations agency that represents 192 member countries, Lee said.
The summit, which was held at the Bell Harbor Conference Center, was organized by "The Hutch" and the National Bureau of Asian Research, a Seattle nonprofit research institute. The event will be held again in Seattle in 2006 and 2007.
Kyung Song: 206-464-2423 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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