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In the closing years of the 20th century, we are completing one of the most remarkable periods in the history of humankind. We live in a time when advances in science and medicine have brought untold opportunities to identify and combat infectious disease. The number of recognized infectious diseases is actually growing. Public health, pest control and sanitation measures have led to the prevention and control of infectious diseases in many countries, but not all countries have benefited equally, as competing problems among the health, economic and social sectors continue to divert necessary resources from infectious disease control.

Some infectious diseases, although quiet for decades, are still with us. Many factors contribute to their reappearance: climate changes, population growth, migration, urbanization and poverty are key among these. Infectious diseases can flare wherever public health, sanitation and other control measures fall into decay, or with the globalization of trade and travel exposing formerly protected populations.

Despite a century of advances, infectious diseases kill nearly 17 million people a year – one third of all deaths in the world today. They also cause untold suffering and permanently disable hundreds of millions of men, women and children. For countries this translates into social and economic costs that no nation can afford. In today’s world of interconnected societies and economies, the burden of infectious diseases must be shared by all countries.

Experience has shown that the prevention and control of infectious diseases is a challenge requiring sustained and committed effort. While the tools exist to bring many infectious diseases to low levels, their application is complex, and concerted international action is required to negotiate the complex web of ecological, social, political and economic factors involved.

Together with the World Health Organization, governments, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, international organizations, specialized technical agencies and non-governmental organizations have dedicated their knowledge and resources to controlling these diseases and, in the process, enriching lives and building better futures.

David L. Heymann M.D.
Director of the Division of Emerging and
other Communicable Diseases Surveillance
and Control, World Health Organization



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