WASHINGTON (AP) – The United States is being urged to take the lead in global efforts to detect and counter new diseases, even as medical authorities work to determine the source of a mystery illness now reported in several countries.

The new outbreak of an unknown illness reinforces the need for global surveillance and improved ability to move diagnostic work from remote settings to reference labs, James Hughes, head of the infectious disease division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said yesterday.

Margaret Hamburg, chairwoman of the Institute of Medicine committee that prepared the new study, said: “Infectious diseases cross national borders and require a global response.”

As if to prove that point, an urgent search is under way to isolate the causes of the new pneumonia-like illness, which appears to have originated in Asia.

So far, severe acute respiratory syndrome has killed nine people, seven in Asia and two in Canada.

More than 150 people, mostly in Hong Kong and Vietnam, have fallen ill, and World Health Organization officials said they are investigating possible cases in England, France, Israel, Slovenia and Australia, none of which previously had any.

The illness’ rapid spread caused a rare worldwide health alert to be issued Saturday by the WHO.

“The United States should help lead efforts to reverse the complacency in industrialized countries” regarding infectious diseases, said Hamburg, vice president for biological programs at Nuclear Threat Initiative, a private group working to prevent the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

“Microbial threats continue to emerge, re-emerge and persist,” the report said. “Others are previously known pathogens that are infecting new or larger groups or spreading into new geographic areas.”

Other new infections in recent years in the United States and abroad have included hantavirus, Nipah virus and West Nile virus.

New infections are spread by the increasing ease and speed of travel and the continuing growth of cities, which bring huge numbers of people together.

The ability of the U.S. medical establishment to track and respond to infectious diseases depends on a public health structure that has been neglected for years, the report said.

The CDC’s Hughes noted that the new report is a follow-up of one done by the Institute of Medicine in 1992.

“We’ve made some progress, but at the same time today’s report shows much work remains to be done,” he said.

He said investments in public health capacity and bioterror preparedness complement those with dealing with naturally recurring infectious diseases.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity in the United States right now to rebuild our systems to deal with infectious diseases,” he said.

The new report urged federal, state and local governments to direct resources to rebuild and maintain the staff and facilities needed to detect and deal with new diseases.

The CDC should work to improve reporting of infectious diseases by health care providers, including automated electronic lab reporting, the report said.

It also said the United States should help reduce the global health threat by working with the World Health Organization, concentrating in particular on threats in developing countries.

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