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  Diseases Threaten Americas

By Dan Perry
Associated Press Writer
Tuesday, Sept. 28, 1999; 2:20 a.m. EDT

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico –– Tuberculosis, cholera, dengue – they're back, threatening millions of people in the Americas.

Once thought virtually eradicated, the diseases have re-emerged for reasons ranging from the development of drug-resistant strains to the mushrooming of vast urban areas with poor sanitation, say the hemisphere's top health officials.

"Drug-resistant strains of microbes are having a deadly impact on the fight against tuberculosis, malaria, cholera, diarrhea and pneumonia (which) together kill more than 10 million people worldwide each year," said Dr. George A. O. Alleyne, director-general of the Pan American Health Organization.

"This is happening at a time when too few new drugs are being developed to replace those that have lost their effectiveness," he said.

Alleyne spoke Monday at the start of a five-day conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where some 30 health ministers from 35 member states are expected today to consider proposals on combating tobacco consumption in the Americas.

Alleyne said smoking is now the No. 1 killer in the region, its related diseases claiming more than 600,000 lives a year.

A draft of a report to be presented today reveals that some member countries with "economic interests" blocked PAHO – a Washington D.C.-based agency of the World Health Organization – from pursuing an ambitious plan for a regional convention against tobacco. A scaled-down plan tries to educate people and promote action through workshops, conferences, and the Internet.

In a 120-page report Monday, Alleyne described the surprising reemergence of diseases like dengue – the highly debilitating and untreatable disease some call "breakbone fever" – that infected 770,000 people in the Americas last year and killed about 100.

"There was a time when a lot of this region was free of (the dengue-carrying) mosquito, but now we find virtually the whole region reinfected," Alleyne said.

He blamed excessive reliance on chemical insecticides, to which the mosquitoes have become resistant, and inadequate sanitation that provides an environment for mosquitos to breed.

Tuberculosis, affecting 400,000 a year in the region, was another concern, "killing 137 people every day."

PAHO spokesman Daniel Epstein said increased urbanization was a factor, since people living in close quarters are more likely to infect one another.

Other diseases identified as reemerging in the last decade:

–Cholera, reintroduced to Central and South America following an absence of almost a century.

–Bubonic plague, which has returned to Peru since 1992.

–Hantavirus, a rat-borne disease that was discovered again in the U.S. state of New Mexico.

–Drug-resistant malaria has infected a great swath of the Amazon region, attacking entire villages in Guyana.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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