Decades of neglect have allowed infectious diseases to devastate the lives of thousands of people in the developing world, a new study has revealed. Researchers say three diseases in particular — anthrax, brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis — have failed to receive the official recognition and funding needed to combat them effectively. All three impact greatly on human and animal health in developing nations, posing a major threat to safe and plentiful food supplies.

The disorders — known as zoonotic diseases — are spread between animals and humans, and are common in societies where poverty is widespread, and where people depend on animals for their livelihood. A researcher at the University of Edinburgh reviewed every meeting of the World Health Organization’s decision-making body since its formation in 1948, to conclude that zoonotic diseases were almost totally ignored.

Their findings reveal that the diseases have been neglected because they mostly arise in developing countries. Scientists say the diseases have been eliminated or brought under control in more developed countries, as simple and effective controls are available.

The resolutions from all 66 World Health Assembly meetings held between 1948 and 2013 were examined to determine how many contain a specific focus on any of the following neglected zoonotic diseases as defined by the WHO — anthrax, bovine tuberculosis, Taenia solium cycticercosis, cystic echinococcosis, leishmaniasis rabies, and human African trypanosomiasis (HAT or sleeping sickness). Twenty one resolutions adopted in all the 16 assemblies between 1948 and 2013 targeted one or more of these diseases, representing 4 per cent of the total resolutions on infectious diseases passed up to now. The 2013 adoption of Resolution WHA66.12 targeting all 17 neglected tropical diseases marked a change in approach by the WHA. Earlier resolutions targeted each disease individually.

Poor healthcare infrastructure in affected countries can often mean that thousands of sufferers are left un-diagnosed. This presents huge challenges to health professionals, policy makers and researchers in their efforts to combat the diseases

Findings from the study, funded by the European Commission, are published in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Professor Sue Welburn, Director of the University of Edinburgh’s Global Health Academy, who led the study, said: “It is extraordinary that in the 21st century we are failing to manage brucellosis and the other neglected zoonotic diseases that impact so severely on rural communities in developing economies when, for many of these diseases, the tools to manage them are well developed.’’

Chikungunya, dengue, Avian influenza, plague, SARS and acute encephalitis syndrome (AES) are some of the zoonotic diseases that have and continue to take a heavy toll of human life in India. Japanese encephalitis and AES kills hundreds of children in the eastern parts of the country every year and results in high morbidity. Reports of deaths due to Chikungunya, dengue and highly infectious Congo Haemorrhagic Fever are also not uncommon in the country, particularly during monsoon.

Salmonella, mycobacterium, E.coli and Brucellosis are some commonly found bacteria in India which cause highly infectious diseases like cholera and are often transmitted through unhygienic food and impure drinking water.

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