By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States needs to lead a global effort to protect people from new outbreaks of deadly infectious diseases that originate in animals, such as swine flu, AIDS and SARS, health experts said on Tuesday.
Air travel, climate change, population growth and rising demand for meat products from developing countries have accelerated the spread of "zoonotic" diseases, according to a panel set up by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.
Species-jumping pathogens also pose special dangers for people because the human immune system can be ill-equipped to resist them.
But health authorities have no effective system that can stamp out new diseases as they arise among animals and humans.
"At the moment, it's like a wildfire," said Dr. Gerald Keusch of Boston University, who helped lead the committee that wrote the report. "We deal with it as an emergency. It costs huge amounts of resources. It would be a lot cheaper and cost-effective to have a system in place."
The panel called for a sustainable, integrated surveillance system to monitor animal and human populations worldwide and for moving quickly to contain new outbreaks.
Such a system could have provided early detection for the H1N1 swine flu virus, which became a pandemic weeks after it emerged in North America in March, said the panel's other co-chair, Marguerite Pappaioanou of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.
"The swine influenza virus basically was circulating for probably about 10 years," she said. "There also is evidence to suggest that the first opportunity for the swine virus to jump into people was probably during the summer of 2008."
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which may have come from civets, circulated for months in southern China before it spread globally in 2003, killing 800 people before it was stopped. AIDS, which has killed 25 million people in 25 years, has been traced to chimpanzees.
The report, which was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, suggested USAID and the State Department lead the international effort to set up a global surveillance system, along with the World Health Organization and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
A fully integrated global system could cost about $800 million a year to maintain.
This is a relatively small sum compared with the $200 billion in economic losses caused by species-jumping viruses and other pathogens over the past decade, the panel said.
The report found that the U.S. beef industry alone lost $11 billion in the three years after bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known commonly as mad cow disease, appeared in a few cattle in the United States.
"Early detection of zoonotic disease emergence is essential to rapidly contain outbreaks," the report emphasized.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu and Maggie Fox)